England are on the brink of going 2-0 down in the second Ashes Test after losing four second-innings wickets on the fourth evening at Adelaide – including a battered and bruised Joe Root in the day’s final over.
Haseeb Hameed, Dawid Malan and Rory Burns had already come and gone against Australia’s second-string seamers, Jhye Richardson and Michael Neser.
And, as the last over began, it seemed Root and Ben Stokes would be left to salvage something from the latest wreckage after England were set a notional 468 for victory – or, more realistically, four sessions plus 40 minutes to survive.
Joe Root (middle) fell on the final ball of day four to leave England on the brink of going 2-0 down in the Ashes to Australia with the hosts needing six wickets to seal the Test victory
Jhye Richardson took two wickets from England’s top order on day four, including Rory Burns
Instead, Root was drawn forward by Australian left-armer Mitchell Starc, going round the wicket, and edged to Alex Carey for 24. He could barely drag himself off. And with England closing on 82 for four, he knows it will be 2-0 going into the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne.
For England’s captain, it had been another testing day on a tour that refuses to offer respite.
Before play began, he was hit in the groin by a throwdown from spin-bowling coach Jeetan Patel, and taken to hospital for a scan.
Then, with less than a quarter of an hour to go before stumps, he was struck in roughly the same spot by Starc – and collapsed to the turf with a yelp of pain. Even the Australians looked vaguely sympathetic. But their laughter soon gave way to jubilation as Root, still clearly uncomfortable, was drawn into a rare error.
Australia now need six wickets on the final day to win the second Ashes Test in Adelaide
Two and half hours earlier, from the last ball of the second over of the innings, Richardson had found extra bounce to take Hameed’s edge, and condemn England to a 49th Test duck in 2021 – five short of equalling an unwanted record set in 1998.
Malan was given an unexpected life on 19 by Smith at slip after edging Lyon, but Australia are adept at creating chances. Four balls later, Neser pinned Malan in front, and a review could not come to his rescue: 48 for two.
Burns, meanwhile, was showing signs that all may not be lost after his first three innings in the series produced just 17 runs. But having advanced carefully to 34, he fended the bustling Richardson low to second slip, where Smith this time made no mistake.
Root and Stokes, who hung on for three off 40 balls, seemed to be taking England through to the close without further mishap – only for Starc to strike.
Root (left) and Ben Stokes (right) were holding Australia off before the captain’s late dismissal
Earlier, Australia’s second innings had been a curious affair, strokeless at first as England bowled as well as they have all series, then more fluent as Travis Head added a 49-ball half-century to his 148-ball 152 at Brisbane.
There was another fifty for Marnus Labuschagne, who plays and misses as often as anyone, but has the priceless knack of putting the last ball to the back of his mind. If he was rarely fluent, he was adhesive, and allowed Head to keep the scoreboard ticking after Australia had scraped just 14 runs from 14 pre-drinks overs for the loss of three wickets.
England’s success, gallingly perhaps, stemmed from a willingness to pitch the ball up – a tactic that cried out to be used over the first two days, when Australia were helped towards 473 for nine by back-of-a-length defensiveness.
Jimmy Anderson made the first breakthrough, bowling nightwatchman Neser for three with one that nipped back off a fuller length.
England started strong on day four with bowler Jimmy Anderson making the breakthrough
Then, in the next over, Stuart Broad drew Marcus Harris forward and found his edge, before Jos Buttler dived full length to his left to hold a superb catch. Harris’s 23 was his best score of the series, and he is now without a Test fifty in 16 innings stretching back to January 2019. Australia’s selectors may have to intervene soon.
More drama followed next ball: Broad found Smith’s edge, but Buttler contrived to drop a simpler chance to his right – not quite as bad a blunder as the one that reprieved Labuschagne on the first evening, but not far off.
Then, from the delivery after that, Broad was convinced he had Smith leg-before with, only for umpire Rod Tucker to remain unmoved. It looked out, but the technology showed umpire’s call on impact.
Smith’s luck ran out soon after as he gloved Ollie Robinson down the leg side, where Buttler – far more comfortable in this Test diving to his left than his right – held another screamer. At 55 for four, Australia still led by 292, but at least England were making them work.
Ollie Robinson then claimed the wicket of Steve Smith before Australia piled on the runs
It was odd, then, with Root now back from hospital and in charge once more, that they abandoned their fuller length in the hour before the first interval, with predictable consequences.
As Head cashed in, the next 13 overs produced 75 runs without damage.
Two tired-looking overs from Stokes included three no-balls, a wide, plenty of loopy bouncers and three fours. Up in the commentary box, Ricky Ponting called it ‘rubbish’.
After the break, with Australia’s lead 371, it was a matter of awaiting the declaration. Head was brilliantly caught in the deep for 51 by a diving Stokes at deep square leg off Robinson, who before the interval had even bowled a couple of overs of serviceable off-spin.
The hosts declared at 230-9 with a lead of 467 and then took care of England’s top order
With Root unable to bowl after being off the field for 78 minutes, and Jack Leach not selected, the move felt in keeping with the oddness of some of England’s decisions since their arrival.
‘All that planning’ may go down as this tour’s ironic Twitter hashtag.
When Root did introduce himself, and brought on Malan’s rarely spotted leg-breaks at the other end, the Australians had a slog, handing both spinners two wickets each en route to 230 for nine, at which point Smith called a halt.
Few are giving England a prayer from here.