Chris Waters '“ The Ashes: Crumbs of comfort sparse as England come up short ... again

IT COMES to something when the top-scorer is a man batting at No.9 on his Test debut.

CHEAP SHOT: England's Alastair Cook walks off after being dismissed by Nathan Lyon on day three in Adelaide. Picture: Jason O'Brien/PA

Craig Overton’s unbeaten 41 on day three in Adelaide was the highest score by an England No.9 making his first Test appearance since Charlie Absolom’s 59 in the Melbourne Test match of 1879.

Ah yes, I remember it well, I hear you cry. As crumbs of comfort go, it was barely enough to feed the birds.

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Once again, England’s top-order dissolved in a flurry of feeble shots as they crashed to 227 in reply to Australia’s first innings 442-8 declared.

Cook 37, Stoneman 18, Vince 2, Root 9, Malan 19, Moeen 25: it read like a collection of lottery numbers.

And, barring something remarkable, it is unlikely to translate into a winning line as England stare down the barrel of a 2-0 deficit with three Tests to play.

Only Steve Smith’s decision not to enforce the follow-on gave England a glimmer, the tourists suddenly finding seam movement beneath the floodlights as Australia closed on 53-4 in their second innings, a lead of 268.

As the English lion belatedly roared and their bowlers proved for the umpteenth time how dangerous they can be in helpful conditions, there was talk of momentum shifts and Smith’s decision potentially proving more costly than Root’s decision to insert at the toss.

ON YOUR WAY: England's Joe Root shows his dismay after Australia's Pat Cummins takes his wicket on day three at the Adelaide Oval. Picture: Jason O'Brien/PA

Time will tell, but straw-clutching is usually a pointless pastime, and there was nothing to suggest that England were capable of erasing the deficit already in front of them going into day four.

Indeed, when Jonny Bairstow was caught-and-bowled for 21 by Mitchell Starc, England fell to 142-7 and needed a sixth-wicket stand of 66 between Overton and Chris Woakes to avert an even greater deficit.

According to Michael Vaughan, England’s batsmen were unprepared to “do the hard yards”. Too many of them, in fact, made a gift of their wickets.

Smith’s decision not to enforce divided opinion, much like Root’s decision to bowl on day one. In Smith’s defence, the pitch should turn even more for Nathan Lyon in the fourth innings and the off-spinner has plenty of left-handers to get his teeth stuck into.

LEADING MAN: England's Craig Overton ducks a bouncer during day three at the Adelaide Oval. Picture: Jason O'Brien/PA

The counter-argument is that England were on the ropes and could easily have been four-down themselves – or worse – by stumps. Had Smith known that the ball would dart around as much as it did beneath the lights, he probably would have enforced, with the amount of movement taking many by surprise.

As it is, he gave England a sniff – but nothing more.

Perhaps the biggest question was why England did not bowl as well in the first innings when the game had yet to take shape. James Anderson and Stuart Broad wasted the new ball by bowling too short, but England found a much fuller length in the second innings and looked more up for it also.

It was a spirited fightback, but the sense of the horse having already bolted was evident in the close-of-play interviews in which Anderson admitted that England have an “outside chance” but were still “a long way behind in the game”.

ON YOUR WAY: England's Joe Root shows his dismay after Australia's Pat Cummins takes his wicket on day three at the Adelaide Oval. Picture: Jason O'Brien/PA

“We’ve got some very frustrated players in the dressing room,” he added. “We should have got more runs than we did.”

Overton was one of the few who could hold his head high in that regard, the Somerset pace bowler stiffening England’s tail. He stood up to Australia’s hostile pace attack, either swaying out of the way or pulling effectively when the bowlers dropped short.

Overton’s previous three innings on tour had all been ducks, but he has some gumption to go with his grit. Amid talk of Mark Wood potentially being fit for the third Test in Perth, Overton might even have done enough to keep his place in the team.

After all, he also removed Smith in the first innings, the modern-day equivalent of bagging Bradman as your first Test wicket.

Whatever happens from here, let us hope that Overton has a more successful time of things than the aforementioned Charlie Absolom, England’s No.9 in that Melbourne Test of 1879.

A slow-medium bowler for Kent, Absolom never played a Test again and died 10 years later in bizarre circumstances.

LEADING MAN: England's Craig Overton ducks a bouncer during day three at the Adelaide Oval. Picture: Jason O'Brien/PA

Working as a ship’s purser after his retirement from cricket, Absolom was buried beneath a misplaced batch of sugar during unloading in Trinidad.

The definition, some might say, of a sticky end.