Of all the inflection points and twists and turns that have led to England contemplating the biggest Ashes breakout of all time, Mark Wood’s influence has been the biggest.
How England missed the extra pace and X-factor of Wood in their first two defeats and how he helped transform the Ashes at Headingley with both ball and bat and now here’s to put his side in sight of a to leave an emphatic equalizer in the series.
On the third day of the fourth Test, which brought Australia to its knees and only the weather could save it, Wood was the key factor in England’s attack.
Even by Manchester standards it will take rain of biblical proportions to upset Australia now as they plummeted to 113 for four, Wood grabbing three of those after Jonny Bairstow swept England out of sight with a deluge of his own.
The prognosis is dire, but England should need at most a meeting or two over the next two days to secure an innings win that would be among their best and most memorable over Australia in 146 years of the rivalry.
Jonny Bairstow put Australia to the sword as England dominated day three of the fourth Test
Mark Wood took three wickets with the ball as England took a step closer to equalizing the series
Wood’s pace made the difference in the last two Tests, pulling England back into the series
And set up one of the greatest Ashes clashes ever at the Oval next week, with all the momentum and form in England’s favour.
It was Wood who made the breakthrough as Australia started their second innings 275 behind and just their second ball when he forced Usman Khawaja to break through to Bairstow and take away a second wasted return shot.
Surprisingly, Stokes took him off after just one pass and it was Chris Woakes who has been quietly making an almost as big impression in this series since his introduction at Leeds as Wood, who was soon after stretching David Warner.
It looked like Woakes had won Steve Smith’s big shot as the latter seemed to pass Joe Root, although the former England captain wasn’t sure he’d hit him cleanly. In all honesty, he probably cost England as replays suggested he had gotten his fingers under the ball, but TV official Kumar Dharmasena gave Smith the edge in slightly doubting.
Doesn’t matter. Wood charged again from the James Anderson end and Smith had the faintest contact with Bairstow as the latter attempted to pull away before Travis Head was once again crushed by shortball politics and the pace of the hugely popular Wood.
Smith’s scalp was Woods’ 100th in his 30th Test of a career so cruelly curtailed by injuries, at least in red ball cricket. He really would have been one of the all-time greats in fast bowling if he had stayed fit since his debut eight years ago.
England had no intention of going on for that long at the start of the day and would have been content with a 200 lead and another strike from Australia just before lunch.
But such was the time left of that Test, in theory at least, and the importance of Bairstow regaining both form and combat readiness that Ben Stokes just let him get on with it and enjoy the fun.
What fun it was as Bairstow returned to his impressive batting power with a 99-of-81 unbeaten run and Australia’s stricken morale soared again.
England had had a relatively quiet start to Day 3 by their standards but were still extending their lead by 122 by mid-morning at just over five per over, while Australia were so keen to slow down the game and head for rain wait it only bowled 24 overs.
England might have hit harder if Stokes hadn’t been bowled for 51 by Cummins, but Harry Brook remarkably managed his 10th half-century in his first 18 innings of the Test before Bairstow took over with an attack reminiscent of his 2022 Bazball debut .
How important Bairstow’s stunning catch on day one was in sending Mitch Marsh back. It brought his confidence back into these ashes after such a difficult start and allowed him to play his best with the racquet.
Australia again had no response as Bairstow smashed four sixes, one of them a massive punch over the 95-yard distance from Pat Cummins, who made Stokes gasp in admiration in the dressing room when he decided this was just too good to abandon.
At one point, Gilbert Jessop’s fabled fastest 76-ball England Test century seemed in jeopardy when Bairstow expertly arranged the tail, adding 86 for the last two wickets with Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson.
As he reduced Cummins to four points to reach 98, a Bairstow-Century seemed guaranteed, but his mistake was hitting Cameron Green for too long and running away, thinking he could make two while dealing with had to be satisfied.
On the next ball, Anderson was left-handedly caught by Green and left Bairstow as the seventh player in history and the third Englishman after Geoff Boycott and Alex Tudor, who was stranded in a Test at 99.
For once, it really shouldn’t matter because this was one of the most important and satisfying innings of his career, giving Bairstow 12 Test centuries.
England never doubted him and were never remotely able to fall back on Ben Foakes from behind the stumps, but that didn’t stop Bairstow from being convinced he had something to prove.
As he proved, and there was even a defiant look at the media center as he walked away, although in truth he’s had some pretty good press over a difficult summer.
By that time England had reached a whopping 592 in just 107.4 overs, with six of their best seven points scoring 50 or more, and Australia were battered, injured and bullied as rarely in the long history of the sport’s oldest rivalry.
Not least their big three fast bowlers in Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, who were beaten in 78 overs on a total of 392 runs, although Hazlewood had the consolation of a five-wicket record.
Ahead of this series, Smith first questioned whether England would be able to play Bazball against the best attack in world cricket. The answer is a resounding yes.
Now, as soon as they wake up this morning, both sides will take a look at the heavens to see if the worst of the apocalyptic predictions prove correct. It can’t rain hard for two days, even in Manchester? It is Australia’s only remaining hope, still 162 behind.