Australia closing in on Ashes after setting England unlikely victory target

Home side lose two late wickets at Old Trafford as they chase 383 to avoid defeat in fourth Test after yet another Smith batting masterclass

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 07: Australia bowler Pat Cummins celebrates with team mates after dismissing Joe Root for 0 during day four of the 4th Ashes Test Match between England and Australia at Old Trafford on September 07, 2019 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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England’s dynamic duo of Ben Stokes and Jack Leach might have already thought they had done the impossible once already in this Ashes series, winning an unwinnable Test at Headingley last time out to square the ledger.

On another engrossing day of Test cricket, they combined again to achieve something almost as far-fetched. Namely, to dismiss Steve Smith for less than 100.

In the elongated evening session, Australia’s master batsman aim a lofted drive at Leach. For once, he did not find the boundary rope, chipping up a catch to Stokes, and fell for 82. A perfectly serviceable score on a wearing track against a highly-skilled bowling attack. Piddling by his standards, though.

It was only the second time in five innings in this series that Smith has fallen for a score of fewer than 142. The other time he fell for less than three figures, in the second match at Lord’s, he was still feeling the effects of a sickening blow to the head.

Smith’s feats of batting excellent are getting beyond a joke. It reached the point that Sky’s broadcast team of cricketing super brains were asking for answers on a postcard as to how to dismiss him.

David Lloyd was sent out to ask the crowd for theories. Mike Atherton reported that Ted Dexter, the former England captain and later chairman of selectors, had telephoned him to venture an idea. His brainwave was quickly scotched, Michael Holding using graphics to point out its flaws, and everyone was back to square one.

While England remain no closer to working out how to remove Smith, they are a day closer to surrendering the Ashes.

Smith’s innings might not have been quite as substantial as previous efforts in this series, but it did serve the critical purpose of guiding Australia to an impregnable position in the fourth Test.

They were able to declare their second innings on 160 for six, meaning England need 383 to win the game, or bat for just over a day to save it.

Neither of those appear likely, after Pat Cummins sent back both Rory Burns and Joe Root without scoring in the space of two balls in the first over of England’s second innings. By stumps, they were 18 for two.

Cummins said: They're coming out alright at the moment. The batting didn't go to plan. None of us expected the innings Smithy went out with, he was incredible.

We'd have been happy to get though the night but Smithy was unbelievable. I'm feeling okay. One big final push tomorrow then a few days rest before The Oval."

England’s condition is so parlous that even Stokes might not be able to save them now.

He had been at the wicket when the day started, with England on 200 for five, and still 297 runs behind the tourists on first innings.

Stokes himself has made centuries in the two previous matches, but Mitchell Starc was able to prize him out for just 26 this time around, caught at slip by Smith.

Jos Buttler provided some belated resistance, making 41, as the home side at least avoided the prospect of having to follow on. But Starc, who ended with three wickets in the innings, and Cummins, who took three for 60, ended England’s first innings effort, as they were all out for 301.

It was Stokes who gave England a rousing pep talk in the onfield huddle, as Australia started their second innings with a lead of 197, and the opening bowlers responded.

Stuart Broad sent David Warner off with the first pair of his Test career, as he trapped him lbw sixth ball, then added his opening partner Marcus Harris soon after.

Jofra Archer, bowling with the sort of venom that so captivated the audience on his debut at Lord’s, first our Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne.

It felt as though England were on the charge, as Australia crumbled to 44 for four, but then Smith, in concert with Matthew Wade, righted the course with a 105-run stand for the fifth wicket.

England coach Trevor Bayliss insisted his team will not be giving up the fight.

"Anything is possible," he said. "We saw that in the last Test match. We have got a couple guys out there and guys in the shed who are more than capable of scoring a hundred.

"We know it will be difficult but, as Ben Stokes showed last week, anything is possible."