England have savoured the most glorious of Sunday triumphs over the last two months but they paid the price for their shortcomings at Old Trafford.
A fortnight after Ben Stokes’ astonishing century gave them a one-wicket win to level the series at Headingley, and eight weeks on from winning the Cricket World Cup at Lord’s, England’s hopes of retaining the Ashes were shattered in Manchester.
Starting the final day in deep trouble on 18-2, Joe Root’s side needed to bat all day for a draw against a potent Australia bowling attack to keep the Ashes within reach.
A win was highly unlikely after being set a mammoth 383, but England hung in there with a draw their goal until the final hour – roared on by a raucous, partisan crowd in Manchester.
New opener Joe Denly dug in for a half-century, while Jason Roy – down to number four – hung around longer than usual before Jos Buttler, Craig Overton and Jack Leach frustrated Australia with an old-school approach to Test batting.
There were textbook forward defensive shots, leaves and dot balls galore as a lively, packed crowd sensed another great escape.
It was not to be on this occasion, though, as with the clock having ticked into the final hour, Josh Hazlewood trapped Overton leg before to end England’s resistance.
All out for 197 after soaking up 91.3 overs, their battling display of application was in vain as Australia, who began the series as Ashes holders, celebrated taking a 2-1 lead with just one match to play at The Oval next week.
A dejected Root said in his press conference: “The guys fought extremely bravely, really dug in, made it very difficult for Australia, put a really strong price on a wicket and that almost makes it a little bit harder to take.
“But at the same time, I couldn’t be more proud of how we fought today.”
— England Cricket (@englandcricket) September 8, 2019
Had they demonstrated the same patience with the bat before this tense last day, there may have been a chance of putting icing on the cake at the end of the English summer by lifting the urn.
While Australia were ruthless – holding their catches, with their pace attack showing relentless intensity and Steve Smith simply irrepressible – England were far too charitable in the penultimate Test.
Smith’s magnificent first-innings double-century came after he was dropped by Jofra Archer and called back when Leach had him caught by Stokes at first slip, but overstepped.
Tim Paine made a half-century after being dropped twice as England continued to let Australia off the hook.
There have been head-scratching selections throughout the series, with the batting order changed time and again, and captain Root making some puzzling decisions at key times.
England might be able to salvage a series draw, but as the Australia squad celebrated with a beer on the outfield long after they sealed a deserved win, knowing they will retain the urn come what may, Root’s men must go back to the drawing board.