Steve Smith‘s air of invincibility finally cracked, just a little, as the combination of flu and a vibrant bowling performance allowed England to take a handy lead in the final Ashes Test.
Every other batsman in this low-scoring series would have been more than happy with Smith’s knock of 80 on day two at The Oval, but for Australia’s masterful number four that represented his lowest contribution of a campaign in which he has piled on 751 runs at an average north of 125.
A rare misjudgement saw him pinned by Chris Woakes with work still to be done and England went on to dismiss the tourists for 225.
A first-innings lead of 69 was extended by nine after new father Joe Denly and Rory Burns survived four dicey overs at the close.
“I’ve been struggling a little bit today, I’ve got a little bit of the flu,” Smith said after the unusual experience of not conquering all before him.
“I was loading up on the cold and flu medicine throughout the day and just tried to stay as focused as I could be, but unfortunately I couldn’t bat with the tail for as long as I would have liked.”
Jofra Archer led the way for England with figures of six for 62. He is now England’s top wicket-taker in his debut series.
He has taken 22 at 17.27 despite playing one game fewer than Stuart Broad, but preferred to share the acclaim with Burns, whose stunning one-handed gully catch off Peter Siddle wrapped up the Australia innings.
“When I saw him hit the ball, I thought it was four….then I didn’t think it was going to carry either,” said Archer.
“It was a special catch and it was even better to get us off the field. Sometimes if you don’t get them they come back tomorrow and get another 30-40 runs, so I don’t think we should underestimate how good that catch was and the position it puts us in.
“We can take that momentum into tomorrow now and hopefully build our lead.”
It fell to Smith to wax lyrical about the paceman, who previously forced his absence from the third Test with concussion.
“He is a quality performer. He has two five-fors in four Test matches and you don’t get guys bowling 90mph growing on trees,” said Smith.
“With the skill set he has got he is a terrific bowler. There is no doubt he will take a lot of confidence from his first Ashes series. It is always huge and he has a very bright future.”
Australia on Tuesday dropped struggling batsman Usman Khawaja for the fourth Ashes Test against England at Old Trafford, making way for Steve Smith’s return.
Selectors named a 12-man squad for the Test beginning Wednesday, with David Warner and Marcus Harris as openers but leaving out Khawaja, who has averaged just 20.33 in six innings in the series batting at number three.
Leading batsman Smith, who suffered a concussion after being hit on the head by Jofra Archer in the second Test at Lord’s, returns after sitting out last week’s agonising loss at Headingley which levelled the five-match series 1-1 with two Tests to play.
Smith has scored 378 runs at an average of 126 in three innings in the series and was back on the field in last week’s tour match against Derbyshire.
The 32-year-old Khawaja scored 72 opening the batting against Derbyshire, but it was not enough to convince selectors to keep him in the side.
Harris has been retained after making eight and 19 at Headingley in his first Ashes Test then scoring 64 against Derbyshire before he was run out in a mix-up with Khawaja.
Coach Justin Langer told reporters in Manchester that he was “very clear on the 12, not so sure on the 11”, with the decision coming down to the bowling line-up.
Pace bowler James Pattinson has also been left out, leaving fast bowlers Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and Peter Siddle to compete for three places.
Langer said losing at Headingley by one wicket after bowling out England for 67 in the first innings was a “really tough loss” for the team, but their preparations for the upcoming game had been solid.
“We felt like we got the Ashes stolen the other day,” he said of England’s successful chase of their record 359 target. “To England’s great credit, that’s what they did — they won that Test match.
“Now we’ve got to work out what we’re going to do — we’re going to use that as fire, we’re not going to feel sorry for ourselves.”
Australia squad: David Warner, Marcus Harris, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Travis Head, Matt Wade, Tim Paine (capt), Pat Cummins, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood.
Provided by Press Association Sport
Australia captain Tim Paine believes Nathan Lyon is “a huge weapon” against Ben Stokes, whose back-to-back centuries have turned the tide of the Ashes series.
Stokes’ unbeaten 115 at Lord’s put England in the box seat only for Australia to secure a draw, while the all-rounder propelled the hosts to a dramatic one-wicket victory at Headingley courtesy of a majestic 135 not out.
During both innings he was given let-offs by Australia either dropping catches or failing to send ‘not out’ appeals upstairs, most notably on Sunday afternoon when, with England requiring two for victory, off-spinner Lyon would have overturned an lbw verdict had Australia not squandered their reviews.
When asked about how to stop Stokes, Paine replied: “Holding our chances would be a good start. Nathan Lyon, in the last two Tests alone, has got him out five or six times had we held our catches or referred our lbws.
“Lyon is still a huge weapon against him and there are some things we’ve spoken about with our fast bowlers where we think we can do things a little better than him.
“But he’s a world-class player and he puts bowlers under pressure and makes them and captains do things that they wouldn’t normally do.
“That’s a huge weapon that England have got and one that we’ve got to try to contain in the next two Test matches.”
Australia were back in action just four days after England had squared the series, with Paine among a number of those rested for a tour match at Derbyshire.
However, Paine conducted media duties after the first day’s play, where much of the attention was on Steve Smith as he made a low-key return from a delayed concussion that led his absence in the third Test.
Reflecting on the loss, Paine added: “You’ve just got to address it. We had some honest conversations and we know we made some errors as a team and as individuals but we can’t be holding on to that.
“We’re in the middle of a massive series and it can happen. We’ve moved on. The group is in a really good spot.
“If we were 1-1, I think most people would have taken it. With Steve Smith not playing I don’t think we were given any chance of winning that Test match.”
Mitchell Starc took three wickets in an over on Thursday to enhance his prospects of featuring in the fourth Test, which gets under at Old Trafford next Wednesday.
Starc has been conspicuous by his absence in the series so far but, after he had Matt Critchley strangled down the leg-side, the left-arm paceman then rearranged the stumps of Alfie Gleadall and Tony Palladino.