For a while in mid‑afternoon as the score ticked along, the white shapes moved listlessly about the Old Trafford turf and the men in green helmets punched gloves at some fresh milestone, something odd seemed to happen.
Squint a little and the picture began to dissolve. Baggy-jeaned ghosts shuffled at the edge of the stands. Jangly guitar music seemed to float across the Manchester skyline. And for two and a half hours between lunch and tea on the second day of this fourth Test England went back to the 90s. In Ashes terms that was the decade of sessions from hell, of howlers and shockers, of bursts of defining English ineptitude. Proper Cricket Men will say you can’t win the Ashes in a session – but you can lose them.
It is probably too early to suggest England managed this in Manchester. But they did their very best across a rain-extended middle session that brought two dropped catches; the dismissal of Steve Smith, Test cricket’s own next generation terminator, from a front-foot no-ball; assorted barks and gripes and fallings-out in the field; and finally the departure of Ben Stokes from the field with a twinge (mercifully short-lived) in his shoulder.
Get back to the 90s! As the endless afternoon wore on you half expected Martin McCague to come bustling in from the pavilion end, or Ronnie Irani and Mark Lathwell to produce a slapstick fielding mishap on the deep midwicket rope. Either way a position of some strength at lunch, with two early wickets taken, had proved to be fool’s gold; blown away by two and a half hours of spills, thrills and bellyaches.
It was also a period of illumination as much as anything else. Test cricket is a brutal game, but not brutal in the way it seemed at Headingley, a game of explosive last‑ditch jeopardy. It is instead brutal like this. It wears you thin, peels away the layers, strips out the froth, leaves you pinned and wriggling on the turf.
Occasionally it exposes you to the full range of a batting genius like Smith, who continued to do the same thing he has done throughout the series; but did so here to a degree that will haunt some of these England players, and indeed the England captain.
Smith’s scores now in this series are: 144, 142, 92 and 211, at a time when almost every other top‑order player has appeared to be batting with a length of plastic drainpipe on the deck of a storm-tossed dinghy.
Up to this point England have worked around Smith, absorbing the hits at Edgbaston and Lord’s. Here his brilliance became an instrument of torture. The step to leg, the flick off the hip, the thrilling launch through cover: England’s bowlers will see these things in their sleep. Plus there’s the other stuff. It can’t be easy acting as Australia’s 12th man when Smith is batting: Wait … What’s he asking for? Gloves? Bat? Fly-swat? Yard of ale? Or … Just having a think?
Smith was at the wicket as that session of pain began after lunch. Fittingly, perhaps, he was on 101. Australia had gone to lunch 245 for five, a door England will have felt they could kick down with a little early intensity. Instead they brought something else.
The fourth ball after lunch saw Tim Paine dropped at second slip by Jason Roy, a fumble from a toe‑edged drive off a wide half‑volley. Roy doesn’t field at slip for Surrey. By the end of this session he wasn’t fielding at slip for England. Batting form and catching confidence have often seemed to go hand in hand. But he probably shouldn’t have been there.
Then, four overs later, came the gut-punch. Jack Leach tossed out a slower, wider ball. Smith drove and edged to Stokes, who took a good low catch. At which point enter: the horror. As Smith walked off the TV replays showed Leach had overstepped, ankle dangling just short of the line. After Headingley, England’s No 11 had been hailed as a kind of village‑cricket everyman. This felt like a slightly vicious punchline.
Joe Root chided his players. An over later Jonny Bairstow was involved in a brief altercation with Smith over an absent-minded double-hit of the ball. Stokes wandered off in the middle of an over flexing his shoulder. And half an hour before tea his substitute dropped Paine again, Sam Curran putting down a low chance at straight midwicket off Archer. Paine had gone from nine to 49 between drops. By the end of that extended dissolve Australia had moved to 369 for five and over the hill and out of sight in this game.
All that remains for England is to escape, intact, to the Oval and a possible decider. Perhaps in time Old Trafford’s unhappy Thursday afternoon might come to look like the horror session where England dropped the Ashes, no-balled the Ashes, then dropped the Ashes again. But this wasn’t really a turning point. It was more a kind of reveal, a moment to strip bare whatever pretensions this England group might have towards being a functioning, settled group of red‑ball players.
Headingley, Stokes, and one astonishing day of cricket kept them level in this series. Either side of that Test Smith has baffled both the bowlers and the captain. Australia’s pace and spin attack has looked more settled and more potent. For their part England have looked like what they are: a collage of talents assembled in hope from the leftovers of project World Cup; and flushed out into the light here on an afternoon of gaffes, drops, and a few home truths.