England folds for 353 despite maiden ton from Stokes as Australia regains the urn at Perth
In the end it was a final-day siege. Australia had already used the catapults, launching eight balls into the stands on the morning of the fourth day. But on Tuesday (December 17), on a near-impossible salvage mission against hostile bowling on a pitch riven with cracks, England’s youngest and least experienced player led an entrenched defence that held Australia at bay throughout the morning session.
Over lunch, with England 166 runs short and two sessions to play, nerves on both sides were just starting to twinge. But Ben Stokes was all that was standing between Australia and victory, and when his brave 120 finally ended just after play resumed, the rest followed quickly, with Australia concluding a 3-0 Ashes victory that must be one of the country’s sweetest.
It could all have been over so much more quickly. When Stokes and Matt Prior resumed at the start of the fifth day, England was 251 for 5, just shy of halfway to its target of 504. There was not only the scope of the chase to contend with, but the pitch. Baked in 40-degree heat for the past four days, it had cracked and broken open like the Perth pitches of yore. One crack around the popping crease was literally big enough for the batsman to lose his boot in.
It seemed that almost every over, a ball was soaring sideways or trampolining from one of these building sites, often flying over or wide of Brad Haddin for byes or wides. There were 32 extras conceded, but Australia didn’t mind because of the apprehension such deliveries created. There were plenty of alarms, with edges beating the cordon and the ball beating the bat, but Stokes was unperturbed, still getting forward to fast deliveries from Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Mitchell Johnson, and dismissing every close call as soon as it had passed.
He didn’t stagnate either, still looking to score when the option arose, while even Prior’s confidence began to perk up after a couple of boundaries. Hearts were in mouths for a moment when Johnson’s attempted slide in the outfield ended with his knee jamming in the wet turf, but what could have been a hideous injury was shrugged off by the bowler. Through the first hour and more, Australia grew increasingly frustrated, but at last Prior fell victim to the Johnson sucker ball, booming a cover drive at one wide and angled across him, and only nicking it behind.
He’d made 26 from 72 balls, and shown some resistance was possible, but more was needed from the wicketkeeper. Now partnered with Tim Bresnan, it was all down to Stokes, who had taken his overnight 72 into the 90s. No England batsman had yet scored a century on this tour, but Stokes finally recorded an entry in that column during a 12-run Johnson over, gloving a pull through fine leg for four. It had been a truly fine innings under immense pressure, and England will at least feel it has found a player for the future.
Relieved and confident, Stokes celebrated with a four and a six from Nathan Lyon, then saw through another five overs until lunch. Even when he wasn’t scoring, byes were ticking things along nicely. Another session like this, and Australia would be worried indeed. It was a long lunch break for all concerned.
But the weight of inevitability told in the end. Three overs after lunch, Stokes attempted a violent sweep at Lyon and could only get an under-edge on the ball, Haddin completing a sensational low catch standing up to the stumps. The Englishman had lasted 195 balls, but all knew his departure signalled the match’s end. As if to agree, the pitch sent one of Lyon’s next deliveries on a skewed 45-degree trajectory several metres from the batsman to leg slip.
Graeme Swann edged a Lyon ball to leg slip for 4, Bresnan spooned a Johnson slower ball for a sensational Chris Rogers dive at mid-off, then it was fittingly the moustachioed left-arm assassin who took the final wicket to fall, Anderson once again gloving to Bailey at short leg for 2. Stuart Broad’s bravery in coming to the wicket injured was rewarded only to the tune of 2 runs not out. The lunchtime position had subsided in 5.5 overs for the addition of 18 runs, leaving Australia’s winning margin at 150.
It has been a massive triumph for an Australian team that has suffered its share of humiliations in recent years. The relief was clear on the face of Michael Clarke, the only member of this team to have been part of an Ashes-winning side. The elation was evident from his teammates, enjoying this feeling for the first time. Siddle, Haddin, and Shane Watson have lost three Ashes series; Harris, Johnson and Steve Smith have lost two.
Indeed, Smith’s trajectory is one of the great stories: from when he made his Test debut in the doomed 2010-11 series, to winning Man of the Match in an Ashes-sealing Test here for his brilliant counterattacking rearguard that put Australia on top after the first day.
But not every fighting rearguard can be rewarded, as Stokes demonstrated today. England’s Ashes are gone, but after three series wins, it’s no great shame to see the wheel turn. The true surprise is the completeness of the loss.
This side is far better than the predecessors who lost to Australia convincingly in the 1990s, but has yet to show it on this tour. It has a lead paceman who has been ineffective, an enforcer who has been injured, a tricky spinner who has been dominated, an aggressor who looks jaded, and a leader who has been cut down to size. There is some measure of pride on the line based on what happens in the two dead-rubber Tests. But before those are considered, Australia can soak up the enjoyment that it has at last won back the Ashes.