The Ashes: can England mount a glorious comeback?

‘Herculean’ task follows ugly scenes at controversial second test

Jonny Bairstow Australia
The dismissal of Jonny Bairstow even caused diplomatic issues
(Image credit: Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Four years ago, Ben Stokes produced one of the greatest-ever Test innings to propel England to an extraordinary one-wicket victory in the third Ashes Test at Headingley, said Mike Atherton in The Times. And for a while at Lord’s on Sunday, a similar “miracle looked on the cards”.

Chasing 371 to win in their fourth innings, England had slumped to 45-4 before their captain strode to the crease. Stokes proceeded to hit a magnificent 155, sharing partnerships of 132 for the fifth wicket with Ben Duckett and 108 for the seventh wicket with Stuart Broad. During that latter stand, Australian fielders ringed the boundary whenever Stokes faced a ball, inviting him to take a single. His response was simply to smash it over them. He struck nine sixes in all – more than anyone has ever hit in an Ashes innings – but his heroics, this time, were in vain. When he was finally dismissed, with England still 70 runs short of their target, “all the belief seemed to drain from” the home side. Australia ended up 43-run victors to take a 2-0 lead in the series.

‘Powered by a sense of rage’

Stokes’s innings was the product of “extreme skill, brutal hitting” and his never-say-die competitive spirit, said Barney Ronay in The Guardian. But it was also powered by “a sense of rage”. Shortly before lunch on the fifth day, England’s captain had been left seething by the hugely controversial dismissal of England’s last recognised batsman, Jonny Bairstow, for ten. After the final ball of a Cameron Green over had been left by Bairstow – and had passed harmlessly to Australia’s wicketkeeper, Alex Carey – Bairstow had “briefly grounded his bat behind his crease and walked down the pitch towards his batting partner”. While this is something batsmen habitually do, the laws of cricket state they must not leave their crease until the umpire has signalled the ball is dead by calling “over”. Bairstow didn’t wait for the call and, realising this, Carey rolled the ball towards the stumps and knocked the bails off. After a review by the off-field umpire, Bairstow was given out – “correctly so on the rules of cricket”.

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Yes, the decision may have been technically correct, but the Australians’ actions showed a shameless disregard for the spirit of cricket, said Geoffrey Boycott in The Daily Telegraph. Bairstow wasn’t seeking any advantage; he genuinely thought the over had ended. The history of the sport is littered with examples of teams withdrawing appeals in similar situations, and that would have been the right thing for Australia’s captain, Pat Cummins, to have done. Instead, he stuck bullishly to his guns, revealing in the process that the Australians believe that winning “at all costs” matters more than playing fairly.

‘Good people who play the right way’

Had this incident involved any other team, people “might have been willing to give them the benefit of the doubt”, said Matthew Syed in The Times. But this is the Australian side that was “caught red-handed cheating in 2018”, using sandpaper to scuff up the ball against South Africa. In the wake of that affair – which led to lengthy bans for two members of Australia’s current side, Steve Smith and David Warner – Australia vowed to adopt a more sporting approach. Cricket, in the words of Justin Langer, who took over as team coach after the scandal, is “not just about being good cricketers, but good people who play the right way”. Hollow words, judging by the team’s behaviour on Sunday.

Still, none of that excuses the disgraceful behaviour of MCC members, who barracked the Australian team in the Long Room as they returned to their dressing room, chanting “cheat, cheat, cheat” and “sandpaper”, said Josh Alston and Martin Robinson in the Daily Mail. By the next day, somewhat ridiculously, the country’s two prime minsters were engaged in a war of words, with Rishi Sunak branding the Australians’ actions unsporting, and Anthony Albanese declaring himself “proud” of his team.

Behind all this “theatre”, the brutal reality for England is that they now cannot regain the Ashes unless they win three Tests in a row, said Mike Atherton. No team has pulled off that “herculean task” since Australia in 1936-37. Still, it’s not completely impossible: the first two Tests were extremely close, after all, and as head coach Brendon McCullum pointed out, England’s players will be “galvanised” by what happened. Let’s not “discount the possibility” of a glorious comeback.

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