Australia must not be rattled – Steve Smith is back for fourth Ashes Test

The only worse cricketing humiliation than being bowled out for 67 must be losing to a team that you bowled out for 67. While all of England looked around in disbelief after that Ben Stokes heist at Headingley, the Australian Test team would have been staring blankly at the dressing-room walls, trying to make some sense of how exactly that one got away.

Three teams previously have been rolled for such a low score and won: all of those cases were in the 1800s, when a hard day’s bowling was probably tended to by medicinal leeches or a sacrifice to the Sun God. Then there was this, the summer of 2019, which makes sense given the darkly absurd timeline that our world appears to have lurched down.

The Ashes were there for the taking, or at least for the retaining. An Australian lead of 2-0 could not be topped with two Tests to go. Instead it is locked up at 1-1. Australia will have to hold England at bay twice to hold on to the trophy, or find another win to claim a series in this country for the first time since 2001. That task will begin in Manchester with home-town boy Jimmy Anderson likely to return. The degree of difficulty has grown vastly more acute.

All of this happened from a first-innings lead of 112, on a pitch where bowlers were in the game throughout, against a team demoralised after being shot out for one of England’s lowest Test scores. Australia batted for a second time with almost no pressure, safe in the knowledge that whatever lead they knocked together should be enough to take down England a second time.

Australia even avoided the one thing that could have brought them undone, which was complacency of the sort reflected in the paragraph above. Nobody was phoning it in. Throughout the third afternoon Australia’s trio of quicks were excellent, knocking over England’s openers cheaply, then showing unwavering discipline through a long stand between the two Joes Root and Denly.

For hours, deliveries hit the seam and beat the edge and denied the batsmen either the width to deflect or the length to manoeuvre the ball, giving away runs at something south of a trickle. Denly was eventually prised out, while the sometimes ferocious hitter Stokes was kept to two runs from 50 balls by the close.

Root was removed within six overs on the fourth morning, England’s blue-chip player gone. Rollicking batting against the new ball from Jonny Bairstow always looked liable to end, and the bowlers stuck at their discipline to get him and Chris Woakes.

Jos Buttler and Jofra Archer donated their wickets under pressure. James Pattinson’s yorker to Stuart Broad was pinpoint.

The bowlers had done everything right. The equation was a bit close to be comfortable, but 74 for the last wicket was the kind of absurd finish that Test cricket had already seen from Sri Lanka in South Africa earlier this year. It was not about to repeat.

Except it did, and Australia will be at a loss. One could focus too much on specific moments late in the game: the fingertipped near-catches from David Warner and Marcus Harris, the DRS reviews burned up and decisions not given, the run-out botched. The broader issues started earlier.

Partly with the bat, not doing enough in the second innings. So many batsmen offered 20s or 30s, while the whole team rode Marnus Labuschagne’s luck across four chances in his 80. After skittling England, the visitors should have been at least 400 ahead and closed the door completely.

Partly in the field, with the defensive eight-on-the-fence approach for Stokes as soon as his last partner came to the crease. The boundary riders put pressure on Stokes to get his sixes right, but removed any pressure on him from around the bat. He was free to line up his big hits as and when he chose. Needing 74 to win, there was plenty of room to keep backing the bowlers with conventional fields to take one more wicket, as they had already taken nine.

And partly in those frenetic final overs, where perhaps bowlers were taken aback by the assault, unable to comfortably switch to a one-day mindset in a Test match with such high stakes.

Australia’s players may not be cursing and berating themselves, because to some degree you have to be philosophical when a truly freak performance blows you away. But winning positions in Tests do not come around easily, as we saw when England talked about momentum after Lord’s only to propel themselves into a wall on the second day at Leeds.

Stokes has picked them up and set them on their feet, and Steve Smith will return in Manchester to potentially do the same for his team. Being philosophical is probably Australia’s best bet. One player’s day out does not diminish what they did right, but it could rattle them enough that they start to do it wrong. After being taken apart, it is up to Australia to keep themselves together.