The opportunity at Leeds might have been bagged by the heroics of Ben Stokes but at Old Trafford, it was a different story altogether. In the end, it was the dominance of Australia that all mattered in one of the thrilling Test series of the year till now. Australia have retained the Ashes and even if they lose at the Oval, it would not change the outcome – Australia will take the urn back Down Under.
Australia won the toss and elected to bat first.
Stuart Broad bowled with an aggressive intent- nailing David Warner for the fifth time in seven innings, and for his sixth single-figure score of a desperately poor series, before Steven Smith and his super-sub-turned-automatic pick, Marnus Labuschagne, continued their own fine runs of form with another brace of half-centuries – for both men, it was their fourth in as many innings in this campaign, and Smith’s eighth in a row against England since the 2017-18 rubber.
But then the weather had the ultimate say on a day that also featured a maiden home Test wicket for Craig Overton, a player rather surprisingly recalled to England’s attack on account of the ticker he showed in adversity Down Under two winters ago, and who lived up to that reputation with a very timely late incision after a three-hour rain delay, his sharp in-ducker bursting through Labuschagne’s gate to bowl him for 67 and end a determined third-wicket stand of 116.
For about two overs on the second day at Old Trafford, Steve Smith looked fallible as he resumed his comeback innings after yesterday’s preamble half-century. Stuart Broad found his edge with his first ball of the day, then induced that rarest of aberrations, a waft outside off from his second.
Smith was unable to settle immediately, and three balls into Jofra Archer’s first over of the day, he pumped a low full toss at a catchable height through the bowler’s outstretched fingers and away to the boundary for four. A final, flighty fence past leg stump followed – and then the master class started.
For the remainder of his 263-ball, 497-minute stay, Smith batted as if he had never been away – which, but for that delivery from Archer at Lord’s, he might indeed never have been.
Once again, he encountered an opposition that ran out of plans and patience in equal measure, as he found sufficient support from, first, Tim Paine and then Mitchell Starc to leave England praying for more rain to assist the series-extending draw that is surely now the limit of their ambitions.
By the time he eventually fell for 211, reverse-sweeping the part-time spin of Joe Root (having frog-marched England’s frontline bowlers to the brink of that inevitable declaration), Smith had racked up a nonsensical haul of 589 runs in four innings, at an average of 147.25 that would have been closer to 200 but for his brave but unwise decision to resume that Lord’s knock while displaying the early signs of concussion.
By the close of another rain-shortened third day, the discipline and endurance shown by Joe Root and Rory Burns in the course of their four-hour stand of 141 was fading as fast as the bad light that eventually spared England any further examination. They limped to the close on 200 for 5, still, 98 runs shy of saving the follow-on – or, more realistically, still two batting sessions shy of ensuring Australia run out of time to turn the screw in the fourth innings.
Rory Burns scored 81 off 185 balls – was arguably his finest innings of the series to date – he had certainly required more luck in the course of his Edgbaston century, as this time he proved equal to Australia’s short-ball approach, judging the length early and swaying late when needs be, to eat up deliveries with a voracity that no other opener in this series has come close to replicating. Indeed, in the course of his innings, he became both the first non-Alastair Cook England opener to face 700 balls in an Ashes series since Root in 2013, and the first England opener of any type to score three fifties in a series since Cook against Pakistan in 2016.
But in the end, Hazlewood proved simply too good – ripping the ball off Burns’ edge as he cramped him for room from over the wicket, for Steve Smith to cling on low at second slip. And one over later, Root was gone as well – pinned on the crease by a delivery so full and straight that he could barely bring himself to look at umpire Dharmasena as the finger went up, let alone burn a review.
Root’s innings of 71, hot on the heels of his 77 at Headingley, was – tellingly – his first back-to-back Test fifty since the 2017-18 Ashes, a fact which doubtless mitigated his disappointment at once again failing to convert a start.
After scoring Hot on the heels of his 211 in the first innings, and into the teeth of a frenzied bowling onslaught from Stuart Broad and a reinvigorated Jofra Archer, Smith made light of Australia’s pre-tea scoreline of 44 for 4 to wane, and poke and smashed his way to an indomitable 82 from 92 balls on Day 4.
It was Smith’s lowest score of the series may be, but incredibly, for the fourth time in five dismissals this summer, his departure was more or less self-inflicted. With a lead of 345 already in the bag and Australia straining for a late-evening declaration having bowled England out for 301 in their first innings, Smith’s inside-out carve picked out Ben Stokes at deep extra cover to complete a match aggregate of 293 runs – a tally which accounted for more than three-quarters of England’s eventual target of 383.
On Day 5, Australia retained the Ashes on English soil for the first time since 2001.
Survival was the ambition of England, but as the tension tightened in another nail-shredding final session, it took an unlikely hero to unlock the resistance of a familiar cult figure. At 178 for 8 in the 76th over shortly after tea, Jack Leach – promoted to No.10 after his role in England’s third Test miracle – joined the nerveless Craig Overton, and saw off the new ball with guts and determination in a ninth-wicket stand that spanned the best part of 15 overs.
So Tim Paine, Australia’s captain, chose an unlikely means to pick the lock. With men crowded round the bat, he tossed the ball to the part-time legspinner Labuschagne, who was given licence to give it a rip and see what he could achieve out of the ever-deepening footholes.
Sure enough, he was able to spit one out of the rough and thump the left-hander’s glove for Matthew Wade to snaffle the crucial catch, to send Leach on his way for a valiant 12 from 51 balls.
The resistance didn’t last much longer. Back came Australia’s senior seamers, and down – at the last – fell Overton, pinned on the knee by another nip-backer from Josh Hazlewood, and though he rolled the dice on England’s final review, it was all a formality.
Australia celebrated the Ashes victory on English soil.
Note: Input from ESPNcricinfo