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Ashes 2019: ‘Series in microcosm leaves England needing another greatest day’


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Australia’s Steve Smith and Pat Cummins leave England on brink of losing Ashes

Exactly two weeks on from their last one, England will ask for another greatest day.

They do so again in order to save the Ashes, an urn they have been desperately clinging on to for so long that their fingertips have no skin and the nails have been ripped from the beds.

A fortnight ago at Headingley, it was win or bust. There was too much time left in the Test for it to be drawn. England either pulled off a magnificent run-chase, or they were beaten.

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At Old Trafford, there will be no audacious pursuit, no Ben Stokes endangering spectators with mighty sixes, no Australians staring blankly into the distance as they snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

It will be all about survival – 98 overs of backs-to-the-wall, over-my-dead-body repulsion of three tearaway fast bowlers and a scheming off-spinner who will feel like he owes his team an Ashes-winning moment.

Mere occupation of the crease, rather than trying to win the game, was the size of the task even before the late carnage of Saturday, when England’s two highest scorers of the first innings – Rory Burns and Joe Root – were removed from Sunday’s equation by successive Pat Cummins deliveries.

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‘It’s gone straight through him’ – Root falls for a golden duck

At that stage, England were two wickets down for fewer runs than their footballing counterparts were on goals at Wembley.

The Cummins-led drama silenced an Old Trafford crowd which had been treated to a day that was almost the series in microcosm. It was a greatest hits, except for Stokes doing something ridiculous.

There were times when wickets tumbled and the pace bowlers of both sides seemed irresistible.

Jonny Bairstow was bowled because Jonny Bairstow is always bowled. His stumps are not a fortress to be defended with his life, but the pins in a bowling alley, spending more time knocked over than they are upright.

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‘A horrendous start’ – Burns falls third ball

Stuart Broad got David Warner because Stuart Broad always gets David Warner. Six times in eight innings, Warner’s third successive duck. Broad has made Warner his bunny – he should keep him in a hutch and feed him lettuce.

The England fans taunted Nathan Lyon because they will always taunt Nathan Lyon. In the party stand, cricket’s equivalent of a nightclub only with stickier floors, it might have been necessary to wear three layers for the times the sun dipped behind a cloud, but that didn’t stop Lyon being mocked every time he caught the ball.

Lyon might still be haunted by his Headingley fumble – he hasn’t taken a wicket since – but on the other occasion in this series that England attempted to bat through a final day, it was Lyon who bowled them out.

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Broad traps Warner lbw for a duck

And, naturally, Steve Smith made runs because Steve Smith always makes runs.

Yes, there were times when Broad and Jofra Archer were flooding England supporters with belief, even to the point that every conversation seemed to end with “if we can just get Smith out”.

But Smith doesn’t get out. Not cheaply, anyway. And here his sense of occasion failed him. Whereas the allowance of one tiny mistake or error of judgement would have sent Old Trafford, Greater Manchester and the entire country into rapture, Smith’s selfish love of batting was the denial of a moment of celebration.

In fact, as he moved through the gears, he proved that he is more than just maddening ticks, umpteen nudges off the pads and cover drives that his footwork has no right to allow.

In one Archer over, he played a short-arm pull like a man whose arms were being operated by a puppeteer, followed that up with a geometry-bending late cut to a delivery that was over the leg stump and finished with an overarm smash at a bouncer that could have been a man playing tennis with a frying pan.

In the frivolity of it all he holed out for 82, his lowest score of the series, and still looked livid with himself. The declaration came soon after, allowing Cummins to deliver the one-two combination that floored Burns and Root.

Just lately, England haven’t been very good at saving Test matches. The last time they batted through a final day to save a match Sir Alex Ferguson was Manchester United manager, Smith had yet to make a Test ton and Sam Curran was only 14.

They used to do it quite often. Matt Prior in Auckland and Steven Finn in Dunedin on the same 2013 tour of New Zealand. Graham Onions twice in South Africa in 2009-10.

If they want Ashes inspiration, James Anderson and Monty Panesar in Cardiff is a decade ago this year.

For something on this ground, they can look to how the 2005 Australians defied England on the day that thousands were locked out.

And just imagine if they pull it off. A finale at The Oval that this summer of all summers truly deserves.

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