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Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne blow England off-course on blustery day

  • 9/4/2019 6:31:33 PM

Australia 497 for 8 (Smith 211, Labuschagne 67) and 186 for 6 dec (Smith 82) beat England 301 (Burns 81, Root 71) and 197 (Denly 53, Cummins 4-43) by 185 runs

Australia have retained the Ashes on English soil for the first time since 2001, after digging deep into their reserves in the final hour at Old Trafford to achieve the catharsis that eluded them at Headingley last week, and outlast another gallant bout of English resistance in yet another cliffhanging finish.

This time, mere survival was the limit of England's ambition, 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 Marnus 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 nipbacker from Josh Hazlewood, and though he rolled the dice on England's final review, it was all academic. Three reds on the big screen prompted an outpouring of Aussie joy - their shattering setback in Leeds last week a thing of the past as they pulled ahead 2-1 in the series with just next week's fifth Test at The Oval to come. After waiting 18 years for success on English soil, the sweetness of this moment will do for now. But a series win is what this side deserves after outplaying their opponents on a far more consistent basis than the current scoreline implies.

That England took it this deep, however, was a tribute to the depth of character that exists within their dressing room - even if the events of the past five days have exposed technical flaws that no amount of heart and tenacity can overcome.

After the mess that Pat Cummins had made of England's top order on the previous evening, bagging Rory Burns and Joe Root for back-to-back ducks, expectations were low when Joe Denly and Jason Roy resumed in the morning session with the score still stuck on a grim 18 for 2. And yet, in differing styles all the way down the batting card, England stitched together a tapestry of heroic cameos that added up to an absorbing day of sporting theatre, even if it couldn't quite carry them over the line this time.

The tone for the day was set in the first 80 minutes of a fraught but absorbing morning session, as Roy and Denly endured, with tenacity at first against the discipline of Cummins and Hazlewood, and then with more opportunistic intent as the spin of Nathan Lyon was coupled with Mitchell Starc's less metronomic but potentially deadly left-arm line.

There were moments of looseness from Denly in particular - a wild swipe at a wide one from Starc that skidded over the head of third slip took the biscuit - but it was Roy who was the first to succumb, bowled for the fifth time in ten Test innings as Cummins obliterated his off stump with a scorching inducker. For all that he had fought valiantly against that same hard-handed technique that had propelled England to World Cup glory just two months ago, the manner of Roy's parting, after 67 balls of obduracy, was wearyingly familiar, as he pushed way ahead of his body, and buckled as the ball jagged back through the resultant gap.

Six overs later, and England's promising start was a distant memory, as Cummins accounted for the biggest scalp of the lot. As Ben Stokes showed in the early part of his Headingley miracle, he can stonewall with the best of them these days. And he did little wrong against the ball that eventually bagged him - save under-estimate the bounce that Cummins was able to extract from just back of a length, as it snagged the under-edge of an attempted leave. The umpire was unmoved, but Tim Paine had no doubt, and Stokes duly walked rather than wait for the inevitable review.

Denly, however, was still in his bubble, and having taken England to lunch in partnership with Jonny Bairstow, he brought up his second fifty in as many first innings three overs after the break with a compact drive for four through mid-off off Cummins. The fact that he had now risen to become England's best hope of salvation was perhaps an indictment of England's selection more than anything else, but it was hard to dispute the grit on display.

It wasn't built to last, however, and on 53, Denly succumbed to the best ball of an otherwise underwhelming spell from Lyon, who appeared to be struggling with a cut on his spinning finger, and whose tight line on off stump had been consistently turning the ball safely past leg. This time, however, he offered more air on the widest line of his spell, and a ripper out of Starc's footmarks thudded the glove en route to Labuschagne under the lid.

At 93 for 5, the scoreline looked uncompromising, but the relative ease of England's survival in the first three hours of play was all the incentive that Bairstow and Buttler needed to knuckle down and grind their way through the second hour of the session. With the ageing ball offering little in the way of assistance, Paine took to shuffling his pack, at one stage implementing nine bowling changes in 14 overs, including an early sighting of Labuschagne in tandem with Travis Head's offspin, before Starc's switch to the James Anderson End eventually reaped its reward. Bairstow, on 25 from 61 balls, was thumped on the pad flap, albeit deep in his crease, and sent on his way lbw - the subsequent review confirming the ball would have clipped the top of middle.

In came Overton, the first of the bowlers and the beginning of the end, it seemed. Not so fast. Overton's selection had raised several eyebrows before the match - but there was plenty that the selectors admired about his spirit in adversity on the tour of Australia and New Zealand two years ago, not least with the bat, where he made a gutsy 41 not out on debut at Adelaide, before top-scored from No.10 in the 58-all-out at Auckland.

Sure enough, it wasn't long before his solid stride down the track was negating Lyon's threat, and he even managed to middle the ball from Cummins for which he was erroneously given out lbw for 7 - not that the third umpire, Ruchira Palliyaguruge, could decipher that fact from the technology at his disposal. Overton only survived when HawkEye subsequently showed he'd been struck outside the line.

Australia by now were looking flat, but just as had been the case in the first innings at Edgbaston last month, a change of ball when the original went out of shape prompting an upsurge in threat. Steve Smith's reaction on examining the replacement was revealing - we waved it aloft as if to say we've hit the jackpot here, and it wasn't long before the ball was bending round corners - one screeching inswinger to Buttler was particularly unplayable.

The breakthrough came via a cunning bluff from Hazlewood, who posted a pair of close catchers right under Buttler's nose, to force him to think again about propping onto the front foot in seeing off the length ball. With half a mind on the rib-tickler too, Buttler allowed himself to hang back and shouldered arms to the wrong delivery - a beautiful nipbacker that cracked into the top of off.

Out to the middle came Jofra Archer, whose allround talents may have their use one day. Today, however, was never going to be his day. Lyon took less than an over to pin him plumb lbw with one that grubbed after turning, to bring Leach back to face the music once again.

The crowd roared for their cult hero, not least when the famous cloth came out of his pocket to wipe the steam off those ever-foggy spectacles, and there was steam coming out of Cummins' ears soon afterwards, as he reverted to a round-the-wicket line and crashed a bouncer off Leach's helmet.

That approach, however, was a sign that the recently claimed new ball wasn't quite having the impact they had hoped. Something more funky was required to dislodge England's ninth-wicket pair, as thoughts became to turn very tentatively to that famous rearguard in Cardiff in 2009 - another series in which Australia were consistently the better team in spite of evidence to the contrary.

Over to Marnus and his speculative leggies. And on now to The Oval, with all and nothing to play for. Australia dearly want and deserve a series win, but the retention of the urn was their primary objective. That has been gloriously achieved.

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