Ben Jones analyses the moment of the day.
It’s been quite windy in Manchester this week. Debris has blown across the field pretty regularly, from the party stand to the old pavilion, debris ranging from bin-bags to beach balls. Through a blend of miracles and meteorology, England have clung on in this Ashes series until this point. But today, as Pat Cummins wheeled away after dismissing Joe Root, there was to be no more hope. England had been blown away at Old Trafford.
It wasn’t just that England’s best batsman – on paper at least – had been sent packing first ball. It wasn’t just that it immediately followed the dismissal of Rory Burns. It was how a single delivery represented the thuddering authority of an attack which, ultimately, is too good for this group of England batsmen. The odd heist, sure. A good session, a positive day, absolutely. Sustained, secure, actual success? Not here. Not against this.
Cummins had chosen his moment. This delivery was the sort you try to bowl whenever you run in, the ball you’re holding in your mind as the ideal outcome of this whole endeavour, the best possible outcome. What better time to bowl it than to the England captain, in the opening over of the innings where, surely, this time, your team will regain the Ashes?
It was subtle in movement, rather than showy. It swung just 0.3° away from the England skipper in the air, movement only proved significant by what followed it. Deviating off the pitch, 0.6° of seam movement backed up the shape, emphasising the arc of the delivery and taking it past the straightest of bats from Root. That isn’t profound movement, but it’s enough to force the batsman into playing down the wrong line, particularly if you send it down at 139kph, particularly if you find it whilst hitting the top of off. When you place the ball in the right spot, you needn’t do much.
The first innings saw Australia force a lot of mistakes from Root. They tended to do so from good length deliveries and slightly further back, balls in that 7-8.5m region, just back of a length where deliveries are destined to go on and clip the bails. What Cummins did, with precision and control that is normally reserved for bowlers who have already found their rhythm a few overs into a spell, was immediately find the length which had troubled Root all throughout his earlier innings. Batsmen are always more vulnerable first up. They’re even more vulnerable if you go at them like this, and immediately press on a fresh wound.
The placement was the reason Root played at it. You have to be good to get Root playing in this Test; in the first innings here, he made it clear he was almost content to be bowled leaving the ball, desperate not to nick off. Some of the deliveries to which he played no shot were millimetres from the stumps. That isn’t how he typically goes about his business, but he has been in Manchester, trying to drag some of Stokes’ over-my-dead-body spirit over the Pennines.
To get him playing in that zone, you had to be perfect. Luckily for Cummins, perfection is well within his grasp.
Equally, he needed a touch of luck. The pitch had started to misbehave, the odd ball shooting along the floor and the odd ball leaping. Cummins’ exemplary control of line has always meant he’s brilliant at exploiting inconsistent bounce, but you do always need that stroke of good fortune that the straight ones are the ones which shoot. Today, he got it. As you can see below, plenty of other deliveries on the same length as Root’s wicket ended up going over the top of the stumps, deliveries which were no quicker than the wicket ball. Cummins was going to hit that good line until the pitch played along; it did as he wished first up.
Yet that luck had been coming. For no reward of his own, Cummins charged in for 10 overs yesterday, breaking his back when the pitch was being far less compliant. According to our Expected Wickets model, his spell would typically have taken 1.3 wickets, the highest figure for a wicketless spell of that length at Old Trafford; indeed, of all the wicketless spells bowled in England since 2006 (of ten overs or less), only one has a higher xW total, James Anderson at Trent Bridge last year, against India. Cummins had put in a shift that was deserving of something more tangible than simply building pressure for Hazlewood to capitalise upon. His rewards for that afternoon had disappeared off on the wind, and this evening they circled back around, arriving at just the right moment. The candle blew out.
And that, in truth, has been the pattern of this series. Headingley was an astonishing effort, but that sort of thing doesn’t happen without luck being on your side. Lyon’s fumble, the missed LBW, those are the moments when you’re dining out on your good fortune. Matches like this are where you have to pay the bill. Australia are not a great side; their batting is, Smith apart, barely even good. But they are better than England, and for the hosts to get close they needed the luck on their side. It was, and then it wasn’t.
The Ashes might not be back in Australia just yet, but they’ve checked in at the airport, they’re waiting for the gate announcement, and they’ve changed their watch to AEST. WinViz gives the hosts just a 20% chance of getting out of Manchester alive, and surely another northern great escape is beyond them here. Barring a second miracle in two matches, England will lose the Ashes on home soil for the first time in a generation. It will be fair, and it will be deserved.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.