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Stokes stands by decisions after Australia retain Ashes

How are we supposed to feel about this?

Losing is fine, easy to cope with, because it has happened plenty of times before.

This is entirely different. It isn’t the not winning that is the problem. It’s the not having the chance to win and all the consequences that are so galling.

And it was there. Right in front of us. From the depths of 2-0 down, England had stirred and were on course to level the Ashes at 2-2.

Australia were on the rack. A frazzled mess of baggy green. A decider at The Oval, the greatest celebration of Test cricket this country had ever known, was so close we could taste it.

And then it was gone. Washed away, drip by drip, in the Old Trafford rain.

  • England denied by rain as Australia retain Ashes
  • ‘Weird’ to retain Ashes with draw – Cummins
  • ‘We did everything we could’ – Stokes rues draw

Think of everything we have gone through to get to this point. Moeen Ali’s finger, Ben Stokes’ knee, Harry Brook bowling to Steve Smith. Alex Carey’s stumping, Alex Carey’s haircut. Jonny Bairstow being angry with everyone. Zak Crawley batting like the second coming of the Don.

All of that, just to get the biggest anti-climax since the last episode of Sherlock.

After three thrilling Tests, matches that were only decisively swung in the closing stages, the most one-sided contest of the series was concluded by a wet Sunday in Manchester.

England kicked a football and a brass band raised spirits in the stands, but it was no use. The puddles on the outfield were pools of despair.

Neither side will leave with much satisfaction. England are still without an Ashes win for eight years. Bazball will not get its crowning glory. The team that does not like draws will head to The Oval knowing that a series draw is the best they can do.

Australia have the Ashes, but certainly not the upper hand. Not yet, anyway. They could yet take the series 3-1, exorcising the demons of a 2-2 draw in 2019 when they were the better side and should have won. Pat Cummins’ men can still end a 22-year winless run in this country.

Four years ago, Australia retained the Ashes on this ground and celebrated by singing the team song on the outfield, Smith wearing glasses in an apparent attempt to mock Jack Leach.

Now they might want to sing in praise of Zeus, Freyr, Tomasz Schafernaker and any other bringer of rain. Even before Sunday, Josh Hazlewood and Marnus Labuschagne admitted the Aussies would be pleased for wet stuff to arrive and any thought of winning had gone. It was all very un-Australian.

Make no mistake, a defeat here would have made Australia huge underdogs at The Oval. They still might be, because very little has gone their way since they opted to stand by Carey’s stumping of Bairstow in the closing stages of the second Test.

Yes, they have been badly hampered by the loss of Nathan Lyon, but they have also had their first-choice spinner in this series for longer than England had theirs. Leach didn’t even make it to Edgbaston.

The absence of Lyon does not excuse Australia’s mishandling of his replacement Todd Murphy to the point he was not selected for this match.

It does not explain David Warner’s continuing struggle in England nor the diminishing return of the touring top order – Smith’s decline across a congested summer is fully in keeping with a man who admits to having little sleep during Tests. He might not have had a wink since the second week of June.

Draw to retain Ashes feels ‘weird’ – Cummins

Of most concern to Cummins will be the way that he, the rest of his attack and his entire team fell apart in the face of England’s shock and awe batting at Old Trafford. Rarely has an Australia team been bullied in such fashion, with 592 runs piled up in fewer than 108 overs. The Aussies were comprehensively Bazballed.

Cummins himself had an economy rate in excess of five runs per over for the third successive innings, while he, Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc went for a total of 392 runs from a combined 75 overs.

As skipper, Cummins looked devoid of inspiration, not helped by half his team trying to get in on the leadership act. Smith huffed around like a man who knew he had not lost in any of his six Tests as an Ashes captain.

Australia’s attempt to bounce back from being outplayed at Old Trafford will be aided by the freedom of knowing the Ashes are not on the line at The Oval. The tourists might also be helped by some deflation in an England team whose Ashes dream has died.

And while the villain of Sunday was the Manchester weather, England only have themselves to blame for needing the elements to behave, given the way they contrived to lose the first two Tests.

Missed chances in the field at Edgbaston and a horror-show of a first-innings batting display at Lord’s left England with too much to do. Before Old Trafford, they had the better of the conditions across most of the series. They have won every toss.

If Carey’s stumping did galvanise England, as coach Brendon McCullum predicted it would, why did it take going 2-0 down and a sense of injustice for Stokes’ men to bring the thunder?

The day before the first Test, Stokes was asked if England’s style of play would win them the Ashes.

“I hope so but, if it doesn’t, oh well,” he shrugged.

One wonders if now, having lived through everything he has in the past four Tests, tasting Ashes captaincy for the first time, carrying England on his back on different occasions at Lord’s and Headingley, seeing the impact the series has had on fans across the country, it will be quite so easy for him to shrug his shoulders.

Even Stokes, who always commits to putting results at the bottom of the list of priorities, might one day reflect on this as a huge opportunity missed.

Given the state of his left knee, this could be the last home Ashes series Stokes plays. It is certainly the end of an era for a group of players that have been the mainstay of the England squad for the past 10 years and more.

Eight of the England XI at Old Trafford are aged 32 or older. Of those, perhaps only Joe Root will still be around for the next visit of Australia in 2027. Bairstow and Stokes might make it down under in 2025-26, but that feels a stretch for Mark Wood, Chris Woakes and Stuart Broad.

Moeen has pretty much confirmed his Test return will end after this series, while, for the first time in an unparalleled career, there are serious questions over whether age has finally caught up with James Anderson. He has taken only four wickets in the series and is still without a Test win against Australia in eight years.

The prospect of a final home Ashes hurrah for this group should serve as motivation for England in the fifth Test, even if the chance of lifting the urn has gone.

There is also the proud unbeaten home record against Australia to protect – an England win would push it to 26 years by the time the men in baggy green are back on these shores.

There is a world of difference between 2-2 and 3-1, a scoreline which, right now, feels like a huge injustice.

England must park the pain of the Old Trafford rain and steel themselves for one last push at The Oval.

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