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England cling on to dramatic final over draw to avoid Ashes whitewash

At last. After mockery and mayhem, collapses and Covid, the gaffes, the blunders and the cock-ups, England’s cricketers emerged from an Ashes Test in Australia with reason to smile.

The smile, it’s true, was slightly crooked and a little bashful. After all, a nerve-shredding draw, with your last pair at the crease and 10 men around the bat, is not everyone’s idea of glory. But after the maulings at Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne, a draw — any kind of draw — felt like a triumph.

Whatever happens in the fifth Test at Hobart starting on Friday, Joe Root will not go home as the fourth England captain to lead his side to a 5-0 Ashes defeat. ‘A small step forward,’ he said, looking exhausted and sounding relieved. Few will begrudge him the respite, many Australians among them.

Jimmy Anderson (left) and Stuart Broad (right) of England walk off after the match at the Sydney Cricket Ground ended in a draw on day five of the Fourth Test Match at the Ashes

Jimmy Anderson (left) and Stuart Broad (right) of England walk off after the match at the Sydney Cricket Ground ended in a draw on day five of the Fourth Test Match at the Ashes

There were heroes aplenty on a gripping last day that ended with James Anderson blocking out a maiden from Steve Smith — bowling his part-time leg-spin because gathering gloom over the SCG had precluded the use of Australia’s pacemen.

But the resistance had been evenly spread and perfectly timed. It began in the morning with Zak Crawley’s 77 from 100 balls, an innings of uncomplicated beauty that — in terms of the Test team’s long-term future — may turn out to be the day’s most important. It needed a superb yorker from Cameron Green to end his fun.

In the afternoon, following the demise of Root for 24, came a second dogged 60 from Ben Stokes who — despite a side injury that, at best, will limit him in Tasmania to batting — kept Australia at bay for nearly three hours before fiddling Nathan Lyon to slip.

With three overs to go, umpires Paul Reiffel and Rod Tucker told Australia's Pat Cummins that it was too dark to use his fast bowlers, as England held out for the tense draw in the final over

With three overs to go, umpires Paul Reiffel and Rod Tucker told Australia’s Pat Cummins that it was too dark to use his fast bowlers, as England held out for the tense draw in the final over

Then, finally, came the evening, as Jonny Bairstow backed up his first-innings century with a gutsy 41 and the tailend axis of Jack Leach, Stuart Broad and Anderson chewed up 75 balls between them.

The weather played a small part, too. A lunchtime shower knocked seven overs off England’s allocation, limiting the number they would have to face on the final day to 91.

Even so, it was not merely hindsight that questioned Pat Cummins’ delayed declaration on the fourth day, when Usman Khawaja completed a second century of a memorable comeback and all seemed well in Australia’s world.

But let nothing detract from an England rearguard made all the more stirring because of the injuries to Stokes, Bairstow and Jos Buttler, who was due to fly home today because of the state of his left index finger. Stokes and Bairstow both headed on to Tasmania, hopeful of playing at the Bellerive Oval.

The final throes of this game were right up there with any of England’s modern stomach-churners, and there have been a few — Cardiff, Centurion and Cape Town in 2009-10, Auckland in 2013, Headingley in 2014 and again five years later. When Cummins found lavish swing with the second new ball to remove Buttler and Mark Wood with 18 overs to go, they were seven down and heading for the defeat that would have sustained Australian hopes of a whitewash.

Bairstow, making light of the thumb injury incurred while batting on the third evening, found a solid ally in Leach — veteran of the Headingley heist in 2019. Then, another twist. With 11 overs left, the outstanding Scott Boland had Bairstow caught at silly point via bat and pad. Australia celebrated as if victory was theirs. Understandably so as, with 64 balls to go, it was down to England’s last three.

Captain Cummins and team-mates celebrate a successful DRS review dismissing Jos Buttler

Captain Cummins and team-mates celebrate a successful DRS review dismissing Jos Buttler

Over by over, Leach and Broad knuckled down, picking up the runs offered by wide open spaces, as much to run off nervous energy as to boost Test tallies.

Broad played out a maiden from Lyon, at which point umpires Paul Reiffel and Rod Tucker told Cummins it was too dark for the quicks.

Enter Smith, who had not taken a Test wicket for more than five years. His sixth ball was full, drawing Leach forward after 77 minutes of stoicism. It kissed the edge of the bat and David Warner did the rest at slip, sending a crowd of over 11,500 into a frenzy.

Broad survived another maiden from Lyon, narrowly avoiding an edge from the third ball. And then Anderson — hero of that Cardiff humdinger 13 years ago, as well the last-over fall guy of the defeat by Sri Lanka at Headingley five years later — kept out Smith.

England breathed again.

If it was a pity that the competitive edge of this series had been dulled until it was too late, then their fight was no less welcome.

All week, their players had trotted out the line about putting pride back into the badge. Something like this, presumably, was what they had in mind to do just that.

When head coach Chris Silverwood, now fully recovered from Covid, rejoins his players in Hobart tomorrow, he will find the team in better spirits than when they left him in Melbourne.

Yet decisions lie ahead. Opener Haseeb Hameed looks finished after his sixth successive single-figure score which should prompt a recall for Rory Burns, ditched after Adelaide.

Zak Crawley was batting like a man reborn as he raced out to 77, having predicted a hundred

Zak Crawley was batting like a man reborn as he raced out to 77, having predicted a hundred

Buttler’s absence and the nature of Bairstow’s injury mean a probable Test debut for Sam Billings behind the stumps, while Ollie Pope will come into contention if either Stokes or Bairstow are ruled out.

The bowling attack will be reinforced by the return of Ollie Robinson for the second pink-ball Test of the series and that could mean a rest for Anderson for the finale.

But, as England’s players lined up to shake the Australians’ hands — Bairstow was first, followed by Stokes, who had barely been able to watch the denouement — they had earned the right to enjoy the moment.

Australia's Cameron Green (right) appeals successfully for LBW to dismiss England's Crawley

Australia’s Cameron Green (right) appeals successfully for LBW to dismiss England’s Crawley

One lopsided draw does not solve all the problems faced by English cricket. Indeed, it may face them for a while yet.

But the singing and dancing of the Barmy Army over in the Victor Trumper Stand captured the mood.

It sure as hell beats losing.

Jonny Bairstow of England congratulates Ben Stokes after scoring fifty runs during day five

Jonny Bairstow of England congratulates Ben Stokes after scoring fifty runs during day five



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