Whatever the outcome on the final day, the fourth Test of this one-sided Ashes series will always be remembered as Usman Khawaja’s match after the returning son of Sydney followed his emotional century on day two with a stylish sequel on the fourth.
Recalled to the side after a two-year absence and following Travis Head’s positive Covid-19 result, Khawaja described himself as living the Australian dream upon compiling his initial 137 in the first innings.
For England this became a recurring nightmare as an unbeaten 101 from just 130 balls allowed Pat Cummins to declare Australia’s second innings on 265 for six, setting the tourists an improbable 388 to win and 50 minutes to negotiate before the close.
As was the case 48 hours earlier Zak Crawley and Haseeb Hameed held firm to close on 30 for no loss – England’s highest opening stand of the series – before a storm that was spoken about all day belatedly arrived. Just the one delivery from the seemingly irrepressible Scott Boland misbehaved, flying off the shoulder of the Crawley’s bat and over the slips for four, but England still knew they would need plenty more fortune on this capricious pitch to escape with a draw.
They looked the walking wounded too, with Jonny Bairstow’s century on the third day coming in spite of a nasty thumb injury, Jos Buttler having suffered a suspected broken finger on the second and Ben Stokes again unable to bowl due to his side strain. Ollie Pope deputised behind the stumps all day and a new-look England side looks inevitable for the fifth Test in Hobart and what will be their final chance to claim a victory.
Joe Root’s somewhat bedraggled men had earlier been powerless to prevent Khawaja becoming only the third player in history after Doug Walters and Ricky Ponting to make twin centuries in a Sydney Test. Instead they could only stand and applaud with the rest of the 25,000 spectators when the 35-year-old, on 98, pulled the loopy leg-spin of Dawid Malan and set off for the latest joyous celebration at his old home ground.
Cameron Green, the giant all-rounder who made 74 and was one-half of a telling 179-run fifth-wicket stand, similarly looked awe-struck after Khawaja had cruised from 35 to 100 in the space of 57 balls after tea. Though less taxing than his first, not least with Root wheeling away to spare his weary frontliners, the innings was still another treat for the eyes through the same frictionless pulls, drives and reverse sweeps.
By this stage England were simply waiting to discover the specifics of their fourth innings task, having early failed to pass the 300 mark for the eighth time this series – despite Bairstow’s 113 – when bowled out for 294 first thing. Mark Wood was still charging in, to be fair, with figures of 15 overs, two for 65 scarcely reflecting another day of pace and perspiration. And Jack Leach was en route to figures of four for 84 which, while slightly dented by Australia’s late charge, were well earned.
But any hope of surging through their opponents and generating a remotely achievable target had gone the way of the earlier weather forecast. Once Khawaja and Green had doused the flames of 86 of four after lunch – the lead 208 runs at this juncture – a team with two fatigued seamers north of 35-years-old in Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson, and no all-rounder to share the grunt work, ran out of options in the blistering sunshine.
While Sam Billing was driving for 10 hours down the east coast to join the England squad in anticipation of a Test debut next week, Pope was at least equipping himself well behind the stumps; a refresher course with James Foster clearly worked wonders here and the four catches that followed equalled the record for a substitute fielder.
Pope has kept in a Test before – 200 overs in Hamilton in 2019, when Buttler suffered a back spasm the day before – and was a regular during his rise up the Surrey ranks. Still, his nimble footwork and smooth hands still belied a two-year hiatus, with his first catch, a regulation edge off David Warner when Wood struck early, followed by a smart second to remove Marcus Harris.
Leach was finally enjoying the luxury of bowling deep into a Test in Australia and as his confidence grew, his fields began to contract and create genuine pressure. This told before lunch when Harris was undone by drift that made him reach for a drive on 27 and Pope stayed low to pilfer the ball like an East-end pickpocket.
The combination of pace and left-arm spin soon accounted for Australia’s two bankers after the resumption too. Wood had Marnus Labuschagne caught behind for the third time in 24 balls this series, a telling move to bat on off stump by the world’s No1 Test batsman not working. And though Smith looked ominous, hooking Wood off his nose for a wonderful six, he was bowled on 23 by a ball from Leach that slid on with the arm.
These successes were as good as it got for England, however, as Green overcame an initial struggle against Leach and began following Khawaja’s authoritative lead. Some of his pulls off Wood were masterful but by the end the all-rounder was playing catch-up in terms of chasing his own century and eventually fell to a top-edged slog.
When Pope snaffled another sharp catch, Alex Carey gloving his first ball behind on the sweep, Leach suddenly had two in two, only for Cummins to decide hewould sooner let rip against England’s openers than afford a visiting bowler the chance of an Ashes hat-trick. This is Khawaja’s match.