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England’s tailenders stood tall as they scrambled to a nerve-shredding draw in the fourth Ashes Test, finishing nine down in Sydney to block Australia’s hopes of a whitewash.
After thumping defeats in Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne, the tourists stopped the rot in the tensest possible fashion at the SCG as number 11 James Anderson fended off the last six balls of the match.
Anderson, 39, had come to the crease in scenes of agonising drama when an accomplished rearguard action by Jack Leach came to an end with just three overs left. He had bravely defied Australia’s high-class attack for 34 balls only to become Steve Smith’s first Test scalp since 2016, the part-time leg-spinner striking at the end of his first over after the umpires decided bad light meant it was not safe to face seam.
Stuart Broad saw off 35 balls for a vital eight not out and was there to embrace his long-time bowling partner when Anderson held his nerve to smother Smith’s final over – the 91st of an engrossing day and the 102nd of the innings.
England were 270 for nine at the close, nowhere near a theoretical winning target of 388 but with a measure of pride successfully restored in the penultimate act of a demoralising tour.
Despite losing the urn in just 12 days England now know they will not suffer the ignominy of a 5-0 series sweep, the same fate that befell the classes of 2006/07 and 2013/14.
The pendulum swung on multiple occasions throughout the day, but never more decisively than when Australia charged in hard during the final hour, extracting a walking wounded middle-order consisting of three players who were being propped up by painkillers.
Ben Stokes (side), Jonny Bairstow (thumb) and Jos Buttler (finger) were all playing through serious discomfort and while the latter is already out of the series finale in Hobart next week, there are no guarantees that either of his team-mates will be fit.
England knew they would need to battle long and hard to prevent defeat and they had several players to thank for laying the foundation that the bottom order held.
Zak Crawley (77), Stokes (60) and Bairstow (41) all soaked up at least 100 balls, showing the kind of dedication and determination that this series has so often lacked.
But even so, their work would have been in vain had the uncelebrated colleagues at the other end of the order not displayed enormous character at the business end.
For Anderson, in particular, there must have been memories of the Ashes draw he helped deliver alongside Monty Panesar in Cardiff all the way back in 2009.
England will be aware that without an afternoon shower that saw seven overs stripped from the day’s play they would almost certainly have been staring at a 4-0 scoreline, but on a trip where almost nothing has gone to plan a small slice of luck was more than welcome.
At 193 for four in the final session and with Stokes and Bairstow at the crease, things were looking relatively secure for England but the real excitement was only just bubbling under.
Stokes, in visible discomfort throughout his stay, fell just before the all-important new ball, prodding Nathan Lyon apologetically to slip after having seen off the previous 123 deliveries with resolve.
He had given everything for the cause despite the restrictions of his strain and it was telling that even his attempts to swing his bat in anger were stopped by the agony in his intercostal muscles.
That left Australia with renewed optimism as they unwrapped a fresh Kookaburra with 22 overs remaining. Skipper Pat Cummins blew the doors open with it, conjuring an emphatic double strike in the 85th over.
First he had Buttler lbw on the back foot for 11, wisely calling for DRS after being turned down on the field, then two balls later he produced a magnificent inswinging yorker that crushed Mark Wood’s foot straight in front of middle stump.
It was a hammer blow to England’s hopes but their will had not been broken. Bairstow followed up his first-innings century with a blockade that lasted almost three hours, much of it with the tail, and when he departed to a bat-pad chance to give Australia another lift Leach and Broad played with true steel against the odds.
They soaked up 52 deliveries and shared 32 runs, with Leach chipping in with 25 runs as he made the most of ultra-attacking fields. It seemed as though they would reach the close but when Smith was unexpectedly drafted into service by the fading light, Leach nicked to slip to expose Anderson for his last-gasp defence.
Crawley’s efforts were all but forgotten by then but he had started the day on an optimistic note with a freeflowing knock while Haseeb Hameed, Dawid Malan and Root himself failed to make an equal dent.