Australia have a gilded chance to retain the Ashes today after yesterday rolling England cheaply at Old Trafford before Steve Smith did his thing yet again.
Having been set a huge total to chase today, England will need to produce something remarkable if they are to have a chance of regaining the Ashes.
The Manchester pitch became increasingly difficult for batting as day four wound on yesterday, making Australia’s massive 196-run first innings lead more valuable by the over.
The hosts began the day at 5-201 on what, up to that point, had been an excellent pitch for batting. Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow managed to survive the first ten overs of the day before strike bowler Mitchell Starc found his range with the second new ball.
He was unlucky not to dismiss Stokes in his second over last night, with the all-rounder first French cutting just past his stumps and then next ball hitting a return catch which Starc couldn’t hold.
After a poor showing on day three, when he sprayed the ball across the pitch, Starc was far more precise. That paid off in his third over with the second new ball as he castled Bairstow with a scything delivery which swung back into the right-hander extremely late.
Soon after, Starc got a delivery to straighten on the in-form Stokes, who edged to Smith at second slip. While England are known for having a prolific tail, that has rarely been the case in recent Ashes and so it was again last night as their lower order folded.
First, rookie quick Jofra Archer donated his wicket with a half-hearted waft. Then Starc bulldozed Stuart Broad’s defences to disturb his stumps. Only some late resistance from Jos Buttler (41) allowed England to reach 300.
Starc (3-80) was impressive after labouring on day three, while Josh Hazlewood (4-57) and Pat Cummins (3-60) were brilliant yet again. After bowling far too short in the first half of England’s innings, Australia’s quicks rebounded wonderfully well.
They have been consistently excellent in this series. Just as predictable was their top order’s failure. David Warner continued his extraordinary form slump, registering his seventh single-figure score in eight innings. The veteran must surely be at major risk of being axed for the fifth Test.
Then his opening partner Marcus Harris was trapped in front by a second piece of fine bowling from Stuart Broad.
First drop Marnus Labuschagne then failed to reach 50 for the first time in five innings this series, caught LBW by Archer. And when Archer bowled Travis Head, whose form has deserted him, Australia were stuttering at 4-44. As grim as that scoreline sounds, it still represented a sizeable lead of 240.
That buffer allowed Smith and Matthew Wade to take on the England bowlers. After tea that pair emerged in an aggressive mood, clearly intent on pushing the game forward. Both men began playing reverse sweeps against spinner Jack Leach and aiming lofted strokes at England’s quicks.
The attacking approach of this pair seemed to catch England off guard. They scrambled to identify the right tactics to combat Australia’s aggression but, by the time they did, the tourists were on a roll.
Australia have given themselves a terrific opportunity to retain the Ashes today. On a wearing pitch, offering variable pace and bounce, England face a very difficult task to thwart them.