For a moment it seemed the tide had turned again in this relentless Ashes roller-coaster. For a moment it seemed England were dead and buried. For a moment it seemed, they had finally let loose the stranglehold on Australia at home. For a moment it seemed Australia would finally break the 18-year hoodoo on English soil.
Then Ben Stokes arrived. To single-handedly drag England out of the ashes. And keep the Ashes alive. One of the greatest Test innings and run chases were born as Headingley witnessed a superhuman effort. The summer of Stokes just got sweeter.
In the first two Tests, it was all about England searching for the answer to Steve Smith question. Now, Australia are in the hunt to crack the Ben Stokes code.
Stokes is England's highest run-getter in this series. He is the only England batsman who averages more than 50 (81.75) and has hit two centuries joint-most with Smith. He's looked the most assured of the English batsmen. Someone who can change gears at will. A 'freak' who can send down 24 overs each in two days. Australia will need to find a way to stop Stokes at Old Trafford and surprisingly, Tim Paine wasn't shy in admitting that the England all-rounder is giving him sleepless nights.
"Nah I haven't lost a hell of a lot of sleep thinking about my captaincy," Paine said ahead of the fourth Test. "But I have lost a bit of sleep thinking how we're going to get him out, that's for sure. He's a class player and he's really confident at the moment. He's going well."
What makes the Old Trafford Test exciting amidst Stokes madness is the fact that Smith returns to resume his battle with Jofra Archer. It was Archer's bouncer in the first innings at Lord's that fell Smith and changed the course of the Test. The duel resumes in Manchester and the verbal barbs have already begun.
“There’s been a bit of talk that he’s (Archer) got the wood over me, but he hasn’t actually got me out," said Smith of Archer. "He hit me on the head on a wicket that was a bit up and down at Lord’s. All the other bowlers have had more success against me, I daresay. I’ve faced them a bit more, but they’ve all got me out a lot more."
“If they’re bowling up there it means they can’t nick me off, or hit me on the pad or hit the stumps. With the Dukes ball – I don’t know, that’s an interesting ploy.”
To which Archer replied, "Well, I can't get him out if he wasn't there. I did want to bowl at him when he came back out [at Lord's] but he was out before I even got to come back on. But there'll be more than ample time to get him out."
Archer though asserted that he didn't want to get caught up in a contest with one man as he is here to win the Ashes.
Stuart Broad joined the Smith-Archer bandwagon firing in a warning to Smith to expect a brutal return.
"Test cricket is a brutal sport. Sides go hell for leather against each other," Broad said. "I'm sure that, when Steve comes in, Jofra will be in Joe Root's ear wanting the ball. And I'll be excited when he does."
The return of Smith in a way will appease Australia's nerves. He will again bring some stability to this batting. The top order has averaged just 15.11. David Warner has looked a shadow of self and seems like Broad has a wood over him. Apart from Marnus Labuschagne (71) and Smith (126) no batsman has averaged over 40. The next best average after Labuschange is 32 by Travis Head. Without Smith/Labuschagne, Australia's batting average is just 18.64.
It wasn't a surprise that Usman Khawaja got the boot ahead of the fourth Test as he's averaged just 20.33. Labuschange might take up that No. 3 spot with Smith coming in at No. 4.
One aspect that surprised everyone at Headingley was that Australia looked like deer in headlights when under pressure. They panicked when put under the pump unlike the Australian teams of the yore who would reverse the chokehold on the opposition.
In a chaotic final hour, Marcus Harris dropped Stokes at third man. Tim Paine wasted a review on Jack Leach with the ball pitching comfortably outside leg. And was then left to curse that decision when a close LBW shout was turned down against Stokes with the replays showing three reds. Nathan Lyon fumbled an easy run out chance with just two needed. Paine erred by not keeping attacking fields to Stokes.
The Australian captain admitted that he made mistakes but dismissed the claims that his team panicked.
Heading into the Old Trafford Test, Australia will look for tactical improvement. At Headingley, they reviewed six decisions wrongly. Overall in the series, they have got 17 reviews wrong and missed quite a few as well. The lack of communication from the captain to the bowlers didn't make it easy.
Catching has been a problem as well, they have dropped 12 catches compared o England's seven in the three Tests so far.
This is quite uncharacteristic for an Australian side and Paine has a herculean task of getting the jigsaw pieces back together in Manchester.
Apart from Khawaja, there is one more change in the squad as James Pattinson is rested. Mitchell Starc has made a compelling case for inclusion after impressing in the practice match against Derbyshire by picking seven wickets. The reverse swing factor at Old Trafford could also make his case stronger.
From hanging on the precipice to keeping their hopes alive, in the end, it might have proved to be a happy ending for England at Headingley but that doesn't hide the critical cracks.
The collapses have been a nuisance. In the first innings at Headingley, it was the fourth time in last one and half years (since 22 March 2018) that England were bowled out under 100 (58, 77, 85, 67). No team has been dismissed under 100 more than once in the same period.
They need to desperately end this rut. Joe Root (77) and Joe Denly (50) finally found some form in the second innings but more will be expected of them, especially Root, who forms the pivot of this batting line-up. The fact that he averages 104.80 at Old Trafford, his best at any venue in England, might act as a catalyst for motivation.
The team management has finally accepted that Jason Roy, after the failures in six innings, has to bat down the order. So, he will bat at 4 while Denly will open the innings. Just like Australia, England too have nagging concerns with DRS reviews and catching. They have got 14 reviews wrong and dropped seven catches. Something they need to delve deep into along with the constant batting failures.
James Anderson has been ruled out of the series after a recurrence of the calf injury but the emergence of Archer has somewhat soothed the wound. Somerset pacer Craig Overton will replace Chris Woakes in the starting eleven.
The Old Trafford pitch traditionally assists pace and carry. However, according to Paine, the track looks dry and hoped it got some pace in it. In the last five years, the pacers have averaged 27.16 compared to spinners' 52.02.
After Edgbaston, Australia face the challenge to breach the Old Trafford fortress where England haven't lost a Test since 2002. They have won nine and drawn two of the eleven matches at the venue. England, however, haven't won an Ashes Test at the venue since 1981.
At Headingley, Australia felt like the Ashes got stolen. Well, if they manage to win the pressure and tactical battle at Old Trafford, they might still find the urn sitting in their own cabinet.
The Old Trafford Test can't start soon enough.