This was the payoff. There can be times watching Test cricket when you wonder about the sense of investing the equivalent of a full‑time working week into a single sporting match. There can be times when a non‑contest is over in half that time and you still wonder if it was worth the expense. But then there are these times, the 15th session, the final hour of a fifth day, when the result is still on the line. The less good makes the great greater.
This, too, is the glory of the draw, when one team can be miles away from the chance of a win but can still stop the other from achieving one. In the frantic final moments at Sydney, as fielders clustered around the bat as closely as the dark clouds overhead, with Australia’s spinners having to bowl in light too bad for the quicks, England’s final pair of bowlers had to do the job with the bat while Australia’s best batter did the job with the ball. It produced a thrill that transcended the series.
It would not have felt so great for the Australians afterwards, no matter the smiles and handshakes they shared with England after a noticeably good-tempered contest. For two years running, Australia has had a visiting team on the rack at the SCG, only to let them hold out for a draw. Last year it was an injured Hanuma Vihari and an injured Ravichandran Ashwin batting through the final session. This year it was an injured Ben Stokes and an injured Jonny Bairstow doing most of the work through the middle, only to fall and create an even more dramatic finish.
This was the first blemish for Pat Cummins as captain, after everything during the first three Tests of these Ashes has gone his way. His declaration left England 11 overs to survive late on the fourth day before a supposed 98 on the fifth. At that point Australia’s lead of 388 runs seemed vastly surplus to requirements, and so it turned out to be. Usman Khawaja’s second‑innings century was a wonderful moment, and it would have been sad to have denied it. But even if Cummins had declared as soon as that landmark was raised, he would have saved two more precious overs. Instead he batted on after a drinks break.
The reasoning may have been to let Cameron Green, then on 67, have a dash at a century of his own, which would be understandable as an investment in a young player to get him going in his Test batting career. But in the same way that there are only two kinds of leaves – good or bad – there are only two kinds of declarations. Rain was always forecast for the final day and in the end it shaved off seven more overs that could have been decisive.
Another backfire was sending the wicketkeeper Alex Carey out to bat in that final over before the declaration. During a poor run with the bat in his first series, Carey was on a hiding to nothing. There was no value to him slogging another 10 or 20 runs, and in the end he was out first ball instead. Carey ended up having a poor match with the gloves, missing catches and most crucially fumbling a fourth-innings run-out. Jonny Bairstow would have been gone from the fifth ball he faced. Instead he batted out another 100 balls and got into the last hour, taking his lower order teammates just close enough to survival.
Then there was a late bowling choice. Scott Boland had been devastating again, knocking over Haseeb Hameed, Joe Root and finally Bairstow. He was making balls leap from the surface and deck both ways off the seam. Cummins had produced a savage burst that took care of Jos Buttler and Mark Wood in three balls. Those two working together in the final overs presented the greatest threat. Instead, with six overs to go Cummins paired with the spinner Nathan Lyon, whom England handled comfortably. Three overs later the umpires made their ruling about the light. By then Boland could have got two more overs in, and Lyon could have bowled two of the last three.
In the end, bringing on Steve Smith nearly worked, as he took his first wicket in five years to dismiss Leach. But he couldn’t budge Anderson in the final over.
These points may seem finicky, but in a series where everything has gone perfectly, the standards are higher. Australia’s main quicks had patches of tiredness, with Mitchell Starc and Cummins both slower on average in this innings than at any time in the series. The chance of a whitewash slipped – they are rare for a reason – and at least for a few days, England can hope to use this foothold to push back further in the fifth Test. The magic of a final-over finish is powerful, after all.