England were on the verge of the surrendering the Ashes after Pat Cummins struck a double blow on the penultimate evening of the fourth Test at Old Trafford.
Steve Smith’s latest remarkable innings of 82 allowed Australia to declare for the second time in the match, boasting a lead of 382, 20 more than a Ben Stokes-inspired England managed in their record win at Headingley.
The less fantastical goal was to bat out the remainder of the match and set up a winner-takes-all battle at the Oval next week, but Cummins rendered that an improbable long shot when he dismissed Rory Burns and captain Joe Root in the first over of the reply.
The pair have been responsible for England’s two biggest partnerships of the series, including 141 in the first innings here, but were skittled for ducks by successive Cummins deliveries.
Burns has been easily the most durable opener in the series but lasted only three balls, sending a leading edge looping to short cover. Root strode to the crease with his team’s hopes on his shoulders but was on his way back within a few short seconds, Cummins conjuring something fit for the occasion: demanding attention on a good full length then nipping away to clatter off stump.
Cummins and his team-mates celebrated like they had retained the Ashes and, although Joe Denly and Jason Roy survived to reach 18 for two, they will surely do just that on Sunday.
Root strode to the crease with his team’s hopes on his shoulders but was on his way back within a few short seconds, Cummins conjuring something fit for the occasion: demanding attention on a good full length then nipping away to clatter off stump.
If they do it will be overwhelmingly down to Smith, whose freewheeling efforts steered Australia to 186 for six and took his total output in just four innings to 671 over the course of a spirit-sapping 998 balls.
The day began with England 200-5 in their first innings, with Stokes carrying the burden of expectation following his exploits in Leeds.
He and Jonny Bairstow successfully negotiated six overs of the new ball but, as soon as Mitchell Starc unwrapped the fresh Dukes, the tone changed.
The left-armer disappointed on day three but now there was swing in the air and he used it to spear a yorker through the inviting gap offered by Bairstow.
Stokes was living dangerously himself, surviving a caught-and-bowled chance and seeing a top-edged hook sail over the wicketkeeper’s head. He managed 26 before the end came, pushing away from his body at Starc and feeding Smith at slip.
His latest attempt at digging England out a sizeable hole had faltered, but Jos Buttler was on hand to take the follow-on off the table with his best score of the series, 41.
He got off the mark with an uppish drive that briefly tempted cover, and responded to Jofra Archer’s soft dismissal by setting off a seven-ball sequence that saw him hit three more boundaries.Stands of 27 with Stuart Broad and 18 with Jack Leach allowed him to beat the follow-on target of 298 by three runs, doing so with a flourish through cover, before he lost his middle stump to Cummins.
England rallied in spirited fashion after the switch, Broad and Archer sharing four wickets to leave the tourists briefly vulnerable on 44-4. Broad began by continuing his bullying of David Warner, pinned lbw in the first over as the seamer dismissed him for the sixth time in eight innings. It was his second duck of the match and his third in a row.
Marcus Harris departed in similar fashion, Broad on a roll from round the wicket, and Archer made it three leg before decisions in a row when he pinned Marnus Labuschagne in front for 11.
The best was yet to come, Archer uprooting Travis Head’s middle stump before the interval left both sides to gather their thoughts.
But Smith was still there and resumed on 19 after tea with an instant gear shift, taking 10 runs off Leach’s first over of the evening with a sequence of aggressive strokes.
He was soon hacking over the infield, sweeping into the gaps and paddling square on both sides. The pressure dissolved as his counter-attack took hold, with Root’s attempts to set a field increasingly in vain.
Stokes almost conjured a brilliant solution, sprinting from slip in anticipation of a reverse sweep but parrying what would have been an unbelievable catch. As Smith jogged through for one, he took the lead to 300, working another single next up for his 50.
Yet another century seemed to be inevitable but finally his veneer cracked, a big swing against Leach sending a steepling chance to long-off to the safest hands imaginable: Stokes.
The declaration came later than some expected, leaving half-an-hour, but it was enough to land two major blows on the English psyche. Cummins was simply too good in fading light, leaving England the prospect of 98 overs on a fifth day pitch with eight wickets in hand.
One, of course, is Stokes, but this may even be too much for cricket’s man of the summer.