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Analysis

A twist in the tale of James Anderson vs Steve Smith

Frustration, deflation for Australia, relief for England as tourists hold out for a draw

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
09-Jan-2022
James Anderson was up against Steven Smith with a Test match on the line. But with a twist. Anderson had the bat in hand and Smith the ball.
Smith had just taken his first Test wicket since 2016 when Jack Leach edged to slip meaning England's last pair needed to survive 12 balls to salvage something from the tour. Stuart Broad did his part by seeing out Nathan Lyon's last over then Smith, who was bowling because the umpires deemed it too dark for the quicks, had six balls at England's No. 11.
Anderson had been here before, albeit over a much longer period of time. There was the 2009 Ashes when he saved the game alongside Monty Panesar and against Sri Lanka at Headingley in 2014 when he came up an agonising two balls short. He couldn't have been more surrounded with close fielders as a crowd of 11,660 sounded closer to 30,000.
With the final ball blocked and hands shaken there were no wild scenes of celebration. Frustration and a little deflation for Australia, their whitewash dreams ended, and relief for England who up until now had been through a tour to forget.
Anderson and Broad made their way back towards the dressing room. Two giants of English and world cricket who have been through another brutal Ashes experience in Australia. This will be their final tour of the country; for Anderson there will always be 2010-11 but Broad was injured after two matches that year.
However, often in England's struggles since Broad has stood tall and it was the same here, his 35 balls of defiance following a that'll-show-them five-wicket haul having made his displeasure clear at not playing more. How many more chapters of Ashes history this pair have left remains to be seen, but this was a better moment that had appeared likely.
England were much improved in many areas of this game, although Joe Root did wish the top order had got the team to safety in the second innings rather than the tail. Each time calmer waters were approaching, Australia broke through: Zak Crawley was pinned by Cameron Green's yorker; Root edged the outstanding Scott Boland; Ben Stokes pushed Lyon to slip (Stokes could barely watch the closing moments from the dugout) and Jonny Bairstow's superb Test was ended with an inside edge to silly point.
Before the game Root and stand-in coach Graham Thorpe had called for character and spirit. Stokes with an injured side, Bairstow with a bust thumb and Jos Buttler with a broken finger that has ended his tour typified that. Before the final efforts to block for safety, the stroke play of Bairstow, Stokes and Crawley had shown England the way of putting pressure back on Australia. It came too late for this series, but that should not mean it is disregarded. This was still a full-throttle, high-intensity Test with no quarter given.
It appeared the game had finally been broken open by Pat Cummins' brilliant 18th over when he beat Buttler with an inswinger - ending a valiant 38-ball stay - then rifled a yorker into Mark Wood's toe. Wood was in such pain that Bairstow signalled for the review only for the umpire to tell them it had to come from Wood. It was a moot point anyway, he was plumb.
It was a breathtaking over on the most challenging day of Cummins' captaincy career so far. As Justin Langer said two days ago, it won't always be "butterflies and sunshine." It was the first time in a Test innings he had claimed two lbws. ESPNcricinfo data said it was only the second time he had taken a wicket with a yorker.
Could Cummins and Australia have done more? It was the second time in consecutive SCG Tests that they had been unable to secure victory on the final day. Last season they were denied by India's bruised and battered middle order and this time it wasn't vastly different. There were little moments. Three catches went down - Bairstow spilled by Smith at second slip off Starc with 16 overs remaining felt at the end the most crucial. There will be scrutiny, too, of Cummins's declaration on the fourth evening and whether it was too conservative. It was a little cautious.
The pitch did not prove quite as spiteful on the final day as some of the evidence of batters getting whacked on the gloves earlier in the contest may have suggested. Leach, writing himself another little chapter in Ashes folklore, if not on the scale of Headingley, looked largely assured until the late edge off Smith. Mitchell Starc, who has been outstanding this series, was not quite at his best on the final day and Lyon could not quite make one bite and turn enough towards the end as he had done to remove Stokes.
Given the way the last two Tests have gone, if light had permitted it would have been no surprise to see Boland had been able to seal victory. He had enjoyed another immense day with the wickets of Haseeb Hameed, Root and Bairstow. His Test bowling average stands at 8.64.
After it all, though, the balance of power has not shifted. England could yet be a patched-up side in Hobart depending on how the walking wounded pull up. Australia's big question is whether they leave out a batter who has just scored two centuries. However, this series needed a better contest. There was only ever going to be one winner on the final day, but for a few hours at least that did not matter. The desire for one side not to lose was just as compelling.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo