The vibe was grim when the fourth day of the Ashes Test began on Saturday. Australia were 12 for 2 in their second innings. They were 52 runs ahead and needed a good enough score, at least another 150 runs, before they could declare. England, on the other hand, had to chase down those runs in whatever limited time they would have or bat out the day to draw the game. For the hosts to win, they had to ensure they took 10 wickets in probably less than half of the day.
In short, there were too many things that had to happen for the match to find a definite winner. The match eventually ended in a draw. But even the most optimistic fans would have foreseen the finish which they eventually got.
It is almost impossible to describe the thrill of the final hour of play on the last day. But what was equally stunning was the play that preceded it and set up the dramatic final hour. In the past, Australian captain Meg Lanning had been criticized for not going after a result in an Ashes Test. And you can’t blame her much. As a captain, you want your team to have the best chance at winning the series and in a multi-format tournament, it might be beneficial for teams to go for a draw at times.
As the lead went past 200 runs, the shouts for declaration around the Manuka Oval grew louder. Australia’s lead was 256 when Lanning eventually decided to call her batters back, setting up England a difficult chase of 257 runs in 48 overs. That equates to 5.35 runs per over. To put that into perspective, since 2017, the visitors have had an overall run rate of 5.15 in ODIs.
But, for Heather Knight and co., these runs had to be chased to keep themselves alive in the series. If they had drawn the match, they would need to win all the three ODIs in the home conditions of a team that recently had an unbeaten streak of 26 wins in the format.
The choice in front of England was clear. Go for the win. It’s worth remembering what happened in the first innings. England were 120/6 at one point, with only two players crossing 20, extras were the third-highest contributor and Knight scored almost 57% of the team’s runs.
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The first half of England's second innings was proof of how positive intent can change the outlook of batting. But that is the beauty of Test cricket. It gives a team a chance to correct their mistakes, come back stronger and impact the result of the match. If there is any form of cricket that allows for the narrative of a great comeback, it is Test cricket. Why else do we still talk about that iconic men’s Test of Eden Gardens from 2001? Or Ben Stokes’ knock from the 2019 Ashes? Or the Gabba Test of 2021?
Now, for most, the keyword in that sentence would be, Stokes, Eden, 2001 or Gabba. But what should stand out or be highlighted, is the word, Men’s. As of January 31, 2022, there have been 2449 Men’s Tests, while the Canberra Test was the 143rd Test in the women’s game. In the last ten years, there have been 430 Tests for men, while the women have played only ten.
But here were England, battling all odds, chasing a target which had previously never been chased in a women’s Test. Heading into the last hour of the day’s play, the match was beautifully set up. England needed 104 runs to win from 17 overs. Australia needed eight wickets, with both Knight and Natalie Sciver closing in on their fifties. And unlike what everyone would have thought, England was cruising to a historic win. But there was still a lot of drama to unfold.
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17 overs to go: Dunkley’s dramatic entrance
England started the final hour in the same vein as the previous one. They got 13 runs from the first two overs. Australia had looked completely out of sorts in the last passage of play. But Darcie Brown struck to get the wicket of Knight, who was dismissed for the first time in the Test after scoring the small matter of 216 runs. She got the wicket of Sophia Dunkley with the very next ball. Australia were suddenly on a roll. Wait! There’s a review. Dunkley survives. But, without a doubt, Australia had their tails up. Or did they?
Dunkley hit three fours in the next two overs. Sciver reached her fifty. Annabel Sutherland returned to the attack and Dunkley smashed her for back to back sixes. She then hit Alana King for a four in the next over. England seemed to be in total command.
10 overs to go: Sutherland strikes back
England needed 45 runs from the last ten overs. They have scored 59 runs in the last seven to bring down the equation by a fair bit and they still have seven wickets in hand. The next two overs then go for only two runs. The equation comes down to 43 from 48.
Sciver hits a boundary to get the pressure down. But the pull shot, which had aided her on the way to a match-defining fifty, eventually sees her downfall as she hits a delivery from Sutherland straight to Lanning. Lanning finally heaves a sigh of relief but England still have the upperhand.
Amy Jones walks in and tries to smash Sutherland an over later, but only manages to hit the ball as far as Beth Mooney in the deep. The equation is 33 from 34 as Katherine Brunt walks in. Later in that over, Dunkley swats one more boundary, moving to 45 from 31, playing the innings of her international career so far.
5 overs to go: A fitting finale
25 needed off 30. Debutante King has been Lanning’s trump card in turning the tide. She hasn’t picked up a wicket but has done her best to contain the England batters. Dunkley tries to take her on and holes out in the deep to Mooney. Sutherland digs in a short ball in the next over, Brunt tries to pull it, fails and ends up edging it to the wicketkeeper Alyssa Healy.
17 needed off 18. King continues to cramp the batters by bowling around the wicket, a strategy she started using with the hope of stopping the run-flow. Anya Shrubsole tries to get a risky single, Healy runs to the ball, shouts at King to get back in front of the stumps, throws it and manages a run-out. Suddenly, England, who were cruising half an hour back, are now staring at defeat.
Charlie Dean tries to hit King away next, only managing to top edge it to Healy. Nine down. England have their last pair at the crease. In an attempt to go for the win, England had created a situation that could see them lose the Ashes right here and right now. An Australia win would seal the series for them, an England win would mean the series stays alive and a draw meant the visitors had to win all three ODIs. Knight decided enough was enough, they had to settle for a draw.
With two overs to go, England finally shut shop. Kate Cross blocked every delivery from then on. England survive, Australia escape and the match is drawn. The last hour ended with beating hearts and emotions, ranging from nervousness to deep breaths. A Test match ending in this fashion has a different level of thrill.
It is like watching The Shawshank Redemption. Slow-paced, intriguing and engaging for most of its run-time. And then, Andy Dufresne escapes. This is the climax, exciting, morale-lifting and shocking. As it unfolds, you understand how every step leading to this moment paved the way to a fantastic finish like this one.
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In hindsight, Lanning’s decision to push the declaration back by half an hour seems on point. The fact that she didn’t decide to set an impossible target like India earlier in the summer is commendable. The way she controlled her troops and managed to bring Australia back in the game in the very last hour shows immense skill and calmness and was just another feather in her cap.
On the other hand, it was Knight and her temperament which previously stood out in the match. On the final day, her bold call to go for the chase would be one of the key moments which will go down in future as a defining moment of her captaincy career. The very fact that England decided to fight for the runs and make a match of it says a lot about their attitude towards Test cricket.
But these two captains shouldn’t be the ones who put their teams on the line to get a result in a format which they play once a year. Had England won the game, would Lanning take any bold declaration calls again? Had Australia won the game, would Knight’s decision to go for a win be criticized?
One of the key reasons for the match to reach this stage was the rain. The match, which had a runtime of four days to begin with, had been reduced by two full sessions. Yet, the onus was on the two captains to make it entertaining for us viewers to watch. The consequences of losing are far more for them than anyone else.
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The conversation of having five days for women’s Tests has been around for a while. But, if the administrations are paying attention, the teams are desperate for a result. Had there been one more day, things could have been different. We might have had a different ending. But the onus should not be on the captains and players to contrive a result, it is the responsibility of administrators to give that to the fans.
The stakes are high when you get to play one match in six months or a year, if not once in two years. The biggest debate around the Women’s Tests is that they are not commercially viable, but let’s not forget this was the most competitive Test match played all summer, men’s or women’s.
Every member who took part in the Test had an impact on the game. Sutherland and King bowled unchanged in the last ten overs, Dunkley played a blinder, debutant Dean took two wickets on the final day, Brown got crucial wickets, Perry got some runs and four wickets, Lanning and Haynes rescued Australia on day one, Ecclestone and Knight did the same for England on day two.
In fact, Healy, who got a pair, picked up two catches and a crucial run-out in that last hour while Cross, of whom three catches were dropped in the Test, ended with no wickets but helped England walk away with a draw. The only way to have these types of performances at the highest level is by playing more such matches. The reality is none of these women know when they will play another Test match.