The two sides crossed the Pennines, knowing that the destination of the Ashes was still up for grabs. Australia made two changes, with Cameron Green returning after a hamstring problem for spinner Todd Murphy (Mitchell Marsh’s century at Headingley ensured he had to keep his place); in the other change, Josh Hazlewood came back for Scott Boland. For England, Jimmy Anderson returned to the side for Ollie Robinson. There was a general sense, after a rather disappointing series, that this might be his last Test at Old Trafford, with his 41st birthday just days away, but the veteran bowler should never be written off.
After winning the toss, Ben Stokes chose to bowl first, because of slightly favourable weather conditions, but also because the forecast suggested there could be rain later in the match, which meant the sooner England had a chance to take 20 wickets the better. Whether he knew that no side had ever won a Test in Manchester after choosing to bowl first is anyone’s guess. But in this Bazball era, old records are merely there to be broken. It was perhaps an unwanted record that England’s bowling line-up was their oldest since 1928.
Stuart Broad, rather than Anderson, took the first over, and was immediately crunched to the boundary by David Warner. At the end of his third over, Broad trapped Usman Khawaja in front, but that was the only early wicket. Chris Woakes then found the edge of Warner’s bat to make it 61 for two. It nearly got even better when Steve Smith pulled his first ball to fine leg where it just eluded the fingertips of Mark Wood. Runs continued to flow quickly, and by lunch it was 107 for two.
England needed an early wicket, but first the fifty partnership between Marnus Labuschagne and Smith came up in a breezy 71 balls. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before they got it from the extreme pace of Wood who had Smith LBW for 41. Travis Head joined Labuschagne and they made fairly sedate progress to a fifty partnership in 88 balls. Labuschagne completed his first fifty of the series off 114 balls, and it began to look as though this pair would take charge, only for Moeen Ali to trap him in front for 51. At tea it was 187 for four.
In the first over of the evening session, a Broad bouncer was helped on its way down to fine leg where Joe Root took a simple catch to remove Head for 48. It was a hugely significant moment, as not only was it Broad’s 600th Test wicket, making him just the fifth bowler in Test history to reach the landmark, it was also his 149th wicket against Australia, meaning he overtook Sir Ian Botham to become England’s all-time leading Ashes wicket-taker. Broad has so often been seen as the Ernie Wise to Anderson’s Eric Morecambe, but in this series so far he has led the England attack, helped by his enduring fitness but also his constant efforts to improve his game and find new ways to get batters out. A great personal moment, then, but one that you know would count for little for him, if it didn’t help result in an England win at the end of the Test.
Marsh was immediately on the front foot, dominating a fifty partnership with Green that came up in just 60 balls, and it took Marsh only 56 balls to reach his fifty, but then Woakes got a tight decision for LBW to remove Green. Four balls later, Marsh edged Woakes, but it still required a sensational low catch from Jonny Bairstow to send him on his way for 51; in the blink of an eye 254 for five had become 255 for seven. No more wickets fell until the new ball was taken, and it worked in its first over, with Woakes striking after Alex Carey couldn’t take his bat away and edged to Bairstow. At the close it was 299 for eight, and honours were pretty even.
First ball of the second day saw Anderson finally get his first wicket of the match, Pat Cummins caught at cover by Stokes. It could have been even better, when Woakes thought he had a fifth wicket, but it was a no ball. It only delayed things as he found Hazlewood’s edge to give him a fifth five-wicket haul. Australia were all out for 317.
In reply, Mitchell Starc struck in the third over to remove Ben Duckett, who feathered one to Carey. Zak Crawley and Moeen found things tough to begin with but survived, and with these two once they are settled the runs inevitably began to flow. When Moeen went to 24 he reached 3000 Test runs, joining Botham, Andrew Flintoff and Broad among England players to combine that total with taking 200 wickets. The fifty partnership took 80 balls to come, which for this side is an age, but going in to lunch at 61 for one, the platform was there to accelerate.
Crawley didn’t get all of his drives right, finding the edge more than once, but he went to fifty in 67 balls. Soon after, the hundred partnership was completed off 127 balls and then Moeen’s fifty came up in 74 balls. Moeen had ridden his luck but was brilliantly caught by Khawaja on 54. A sumptuous drive from Crawley took him to 2000 runs in Test cricket, even if at that point his average was still a touch under 30. He then went to his hundred off 93 balls – his second fifty had taken just 26 deliveries, and it was the fourth quickest by an England batter in Ashes history. Root and Crawley went to their fifty partnership in only 33 balls, as Australia struggled to find any sort of answer. But then when Root is reverse scooping you for six, what do you do? The hundred partnership came up with a Crawley six in 82 balls. At tea, it was 239 for two, with Crawley having scored 106 runs in the session as England added 178 runs in 25 overs at a rate of 7.12.
An enthralled Old Trafford crowd awaited an evening mauling of Australia. Root went to his fifty in 45 balls with another reverse scoop, then Crawley made 150 in 152 balls. With a partnership of 150 off 137 balls, all Australia needed to see was Starc feeling his hamstring. They’d just gone past the 200 partnership, off 182 balls, when Crawley was bowled by Green for 189 off 182 balls. He was 11 runs short of becoming only the third England batter to have scored 200 runs in a day, after Reginald Foster in 1903-04 and Wally Hammond in 1938. Hazlewood then bowled Root, on 84, with one that barely rose above the ground – the sort of delivery that makes a bowler’s eyes light up. Stokes joined Harry Brook and there was a relatively steady session of play before the close, which saw England on 384 for four, 67 ahead.
Second ball of the third day, Stokes charged down the wicket to Hazlewood, but missed it, giving an immediate insight into England’s plans. The fifty partnership came up in a relatively sedate 79 balls, before Stokes reached his own fifty in 72 balls but then was bowled by Cummins when he hit wildly across the line. Having made a highest score of 20 in his last five innings and under the spotlight for some errors behind the stumps, Bairstow came to the crease with a point to prove. This match had seen his keeping at its best of the series; now we were to see his batting join it. Brook pushed a single to go to fifty off 80 balls, his first of the series. Australia waited ten additional overs to take the new ball and almost immediately it worked when Brook launched one to fine leg and was out for 61. Woakes edged his first ball to Carey, and Hazlewood was on a hat-trick. Hazlewood then deceived Wood with a slower one and the teams went in to lunch on 506 for eight, off just 96 overs.
After the break, Broad skied one for Hazlewood to catch off his own bowling to give him five wickets. At 526 for nine, Anderson came out to a standing ovation on what was likely to be his last Test innings at the ground. Some felt England might have declared, but with Bairstow crunching one for six to bring up his fifty off 51 balls, Stokes felt having the runs in the bank was key. Some of the shots Bairstow played were astonishing as the fifty partnership came up in just 39 balls. But then Green trapped Anderson LBW and Bairstow was stranded on 99 not out off 81 balls (just the third England batter to suffer that fate, after Geoff Boycott and Alex Tudor). England were all out for 592 having scored their runs at 5.49 per over, with six of the top seven reaching fifty. Australia needed 275 simply to make England bat again, but their openers made a steady start until Khawaja nicked Wood’s second ball, so at tea it was 39 for one.
In the evening session, England needed to rattle through the top order and Woakes had Warner in two minds, with the inside edge cannoning onto his stumps, then came a key moment when an edge from Smith, facing his second ball, went to Root and was deemed not to have carried – it was very, very close. Thereafter Labuschagne and Smith appeared happy to occupy the crease, knowing that the weather forecast was in their favour, but when Smith tried to hook a bouncer from Wood, only to feather an edge through to Bairstow, it was the vital breakthrough; for Wood it was his 100th Test wicket. Towards the end of the day Wood got one to rear up at Head, who could only fend it off to Duckett in the gully. Labuschagne and Marsh did little more than see out the rest of the day and it was 113 for four at close.
The forecast rain for the fourth day duly arrived, and it wasn’t until 2.45 that play finally started. England knew that they might not have much time to get the last six wickets, which always creates a subconscious pressure to bowl the killer delivery every ball – but it’s hard to patient when you have no time. Labuschagne reached his fifty in 99 balls, as Australia continued to make cautious progress, with the fifty partnership taking 111 balls. As the light worsened, the umpires called for spin, but Australia carried on, taking the deficit below a hundred. Labuschagne began to play more freely, and his 11th hundred came up off 161 balls, then the century partnership was reached in 174 deliveries. Just as it appeared to be a totally frustrating session, Labuschagne got a fine edge on one from Root and was out for 111, so at tea it was 214 for five. Could England now force the matter? Unfortunately, the rain returned during the break and there was no more play.
Day Five dawned and with it came the rain. Eventually there was no option but to abandon play for the day. It was the 32nd full day’s play lost to the weather at Old Trafford – the worst record of any England ground. With that the match was drawn (the first such result under Stokes) and Australia retained the Ashes. Unsurprisingly, Crawley was named Man of the Match, but for England it was the hardest way to lose the Ashes, when everything had been set up for victory after three days of play. However, looking back over the four Tests, there were several moments where England could look back and think that they had let chances slip and had now paid the penalty. Still, there was no doubt that the final Test at The Oval, starting on Thursday, will be just as competitive, as England seek to avoid their first home defeat since 2001 by securing a win.