For a match tally of 293 runs, Steve Smith alone would go down as the difference between the two sides at Old Trafford. Joe Root, in fact, doesn’t think any differently.
The former Australian skipper returned from the concussion-forced break and hit his first double hundred of the series – the third century in four innings across Tests – and then followed it up with 82 in the second innings to take his series tally to 671 runs in five outings, nearly the double of what the second-best has in eight innings (Ben Stokes, 354 runs). Quite understandably, England were left to rue the missed chances against Smith in the fourth Test. The half a chance Jofra Acher dropped when he was on 65, the near run-out on 82 or the reprieve in slips because Jack Leach had overstepped when Smith was on 118 – England offered plenty of lifelines, and paid a heavy price for it. And all that when, after winning a crucial toss, the hosts had Australia on the mat early at 28/2.
“I thought it was a brilliant Test match and a good wicket. It was an important toss to win but having got them in the position we did early on it was important to make the most of that,” Root said reflecting back on the 185-run loss in Manchester. “Credit to Australia, it was a good partnership for them. We were not as good as we would have liked to be and consistent throughout the whole game. Bowling at Steve Smith in his form is difficult and you have to make sure you take all your chances. We did not do that and that cost us,” the English skipper added.
Smith added 116 runs for the third wicket partnership with his concussion substitute Marnus Labuschagne to bail Australia out of the puddle, and then stitched another 145-run stand with his captain, Tim Paine, en route to his third Test double that strengthened the visitors’ hold on the game even before England had batted. And the fact that this Ashes has by far been dominated by the ball puts Smith’s efforts in perspective.
“Pat [Cummins] has bowled good areas. He has asked good questions a lot of the time and in many ways that is a good lesson for us as a side. It has been a series dominated by the ball. Look, both batting sides have very experienced players who have not performed how they would have liked and that tells a story by itself. Take Steve Smith out and it would be very similar from both teams,” Root noted.
Root also duly credited his opposition for playing the cricket they have to retain the Ashes in England for the first time in 18 years, and the individual performances that led to the historic feat. “You turn up to an Ashes series you put everything you can into it. You leave everything out on the field. Everyone has done that. At times we have not been at our absolute best. We have played a very good side that has performed well in these conditions. Look at the Test matches and there have been times when one guy has made a difference and that has probably cost us the urn this time around.”
Looking at the brighter side, however, Root said he couldn’t be more proud of his team for fighting it out the way they did. Against an unrelenting Australian pace attack, the resistance came in various forms – the Joe Denly and Jason Roy partnership for the third wicket that continued from the previous evening, the Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow effort in the second session and even the gutsy rearguard action from Craig Overton and Jack Leach that lasted 14 overs towards the fag end and rekindled the faint hopes of a draw.
“I thought the guys fought extremely bravely. Dug in and fought and put a high price on their wicket. Almost makes it a little bit harder to take but at the same time I could not be more proud with how we fought today,” the 28-year-old said of his team’s resilience.
Root also stressed that England will draw inspiration from this fightback and the Leeds victory to put everything in the field in the final Test at Oval next week to ensure they don’t lose the series from here.
“When you find yourself in a situation like today you learn a lot about your team and the guys. I thought everyone showed a lot of courage, resilience, a lot of character and everyone should be really proud about how they approached the day. I think we will look at other aspects of the game and think maybe we could have been better and most importantly we have got to look forward to the next Test match and get something out of this series. I know the Ashes are not coming back but in terms of the Test championship at the end of the two-year cycle those points could be crucial. You never want to lose an Ashes series. Every game against Australia matters. Turning up at the Oval and putting in a strong performance to win the game is crucial for this group.
“It matters to me, it matters to everyone involved. It is a big game.”