Only rain can save Australia from a resounding Ashes loss to England after the hosts’ domination of the fourth Test only grew stronger on Day 3 at Old Trafford.
With England blasting their way to 592 all out in the fastest-scoring completed Ashes innings in history courtesy of a spectacular unbeaten 99 from Jonny Bairstow, then picking up four wickets in 41 overs before the close – three to Mark Wood – the visitors’ chances of retaining the urn in Manchester will rest on the city’s weather over the next two days.
Heavy rain is expected across much of Days 4 and 5, which could prove the error in Ben Stokes’ decision to not declare; if any play can be forced, however, Australia’s chances of avoiding an Ashes thumping look slim to none.
4/113 at the close after Mark Wood removed Steve Smith (17) and Travis Head (1) in a late burst before stumps, a pitch showing regular uneven bounce promises to make Marnus Labuschagne (44 not out) and the rest of the Australian batting order’s job a hellish one should a total washout be avoided.
For England, Bairstow’s stranding one run shy of a maiden Ashes ton at home was the one blip on another memorable day, Stokes (51) and Harry Brook (61) both reaching 50s before Wood winkled out Usman Khawaja and Smith on either side of Chris Woakes adding the scalp of David Warner (28) for the second time in the match.
It’s the first time in a remarkably even series a Test has tilted so completely and irreversibly towards one team, though the greater battle to come may prove England versus Father Time.
Resuming on 4/384, Day 3 began for England with steady, though brisk, accumulation for Brook and Stokes.
A wretched fielding performance from the Aussies continued when Carey fumbled a chance to run out Stokes in the day’s second over, and when the England captain bashed Josh Hazlewood through the covers for four in the next over, the wicketkeeper would no doubt have been feeling all the worse for the error.
With Brook joining the party via a trio of boundaries within four Starc balls, cover-driving a half-volley and full toss with contemptuous ease, Australia’s utter despondency was summed up in their choice to delay taking the second new ball, on the basis the harder, shinier pill would be easier to hit to the ropes.
When Pat Cummins at last took it three overs overdue, it would immediately bear fruit, though, with Stokes’ attempted heave across the line finding only the inside edge en route to the stumps.
Brook would join Stokes in reaching 50, his second in a row this series after his match-winning turn in the Headingley run chase, but he too would fall shortly after, top-edging his most aggressive shot of the day to Starc at fine leg off Hazlewood; his 100-ball 61 almost a snail’s pace compared to Zak Crawley and Joe Root’s Day 2 blitzkrieg.
A late haul loomed for Hazlewood when the right-armer added Chris Woakes in his next over for a first-ball duck, the England all-rounder drawn into an edge behind to a tempter outside off.
A fourth would follow when Wood had his furniture disturbed one ball after clipping Hazlewood for a deft boundary to fine leg off the last ball before lunch; the over costing Hazlewood 15 thanks to a pair of earlier fours to the now-motoring Bairstow, but picking up a scalp to soften the blow.
8/506 at lunch, many expected Stokes to halt the innings there with a lead of 189 and ample time to make inroads into Australia’s top order; whether to completely shut the door on the visitors or even to enable Bairstow, on 41, to have a crack at a century, the fun would continue into the second session.
When Stuart Broad fell for 7 as Hazlewood snatched a caught-and-bowled to complete his five-wicket haul, England had 526 on the board and the end seemed nigh.
But not for the first time this series, a game of cat and mouse would ensue for the final wicket as a freewheeling Bairstow passed 50 with a vicious pull over backward square off Starc, then continued to pepper the boundaries and the stands thereafter.
Having reached his half-century off his 51st ball, he’d make it to 98 off just 28 more, on the way completing Cummins’ most expensive ever innings with two more brutal pulls into the square leg stands.
With Bairstow cleverly farming the strike with a series of quick byes run off Carey’s arm, the keeper’s tenpin bowling erring where it had infamously succeeded at Lord’s, the partnership swelled past 50 as Australia’s torment continued.
Only one short shy of a ton did the much-maligned keeper-batter err: an ambitious attempt to run two off a cover drive into the deep would nearly leave Anderson high and dry before Bairstow sent him back, the throw coming into the wrong end to attempt a run out.
Regardless, Australia would have their man; needing to survive three Cameron Green balls to give Bairstow a chance at the run he needed, Anderson would be trapped plumb in front to the first, standing Bairstow on 99 and adding a tinge of sadness to the generous applause ringing around Old Trafford.
With a lead of 275, England could be content to embark on all out attack with the ball for the rest of the day, though Khawaja and Warner looked secure early.
After the latter saw off Broad’s opening spell for the second time in the Test, Warner began to play more expansively when Moeen Ali was given an early spell; first launching the off-spinner over his head and down the ground, then cashing in on a full toss with a clip through the vacant mid-wicket region, the veteran was away.
The same couldn’t be said of Khawaja, who, discomfited by Wood’s pace and bounce once more, not only lost his wicket to a faint edge behind off a rising delivery from the English paceman an over before tea, but burned a review trying desperately to overturn the on-field call of out.
1/39 at the final break slowly grew as Labuschagne joined Warner and looked confident from the outset; though troubled by the occasional low shooter from Broad, the pair’s hard running between the wickets even forced four overthrows when a wayward Anderson throw missed both ends by a considerable distance to frustrate his long term new ball partner.
On 28 and set again, though, Warner would squander his second start of the Test: Chris Woakes’ incisive line and perfect length angling across the left-hander left him in two minds, initially shoulder arms but at the last second jamming down, only for the ball to ping off the inside edge and back onto his own stumps.
Second ball, Smith came within millimetres of joining him when a thick edge carried close enough to Root at slip for the former captain to insist on a check with the third umpire despite refusing to celebrate; that lack of reaction may have been what cost him in the end, a line-ball call confirmed to be not out by third umpire Kumar Dharmasena.
Looking to capitalise on the good fortune, Smith’s innings was properly away when he flicked a straight offering from Woakes through mid-wicket for a trademark boundary – but the good times wouldn’t last.
On 18, Wood would again provide England the breakthrough they needed, a short ball onto Smith coming through slightly slower than he anticipated and making him pay the price for a half-hearted pull shot, the ball grazing his glove en route to a gleeful Bairstow.
Not even waiting for the umpire’s decision, Smith’s latest failure left Australia even further in the mire – and when Head, once again targeted with the short ball by Wood, could only fend a vicious riser to Duckett at gully for 1, the Manchester crowd had yet another highlight to crow about.
Batting stoically through the carnage, Labuschagne continued to look as solid as at any point in the first three Tests, driving crisply and putting away anything short with control and precision.
With he and Marsh safely through to stumps, Australia’s hopes of forcing a draw remain alive – though of 180 possible overs remaining on the final two days, a good three-quarters of them will need to be lost to rain to give the visitors any hopes of securing the urn before The Oval.