If this was the day that the Ashes were booked on a flight to Australia, England will be left to consider what might have been.
The Headingley Test was supposed to be England’s, where they capitalised on the momentum gained at Lord’s to level the series.
No Steve Smith. Jofra Archer bowling at the speed of light. Australia wobbling after scraping to a draw in the second Test. England’s middle order of Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler firing again.
And wouldn’t it have been something to be 1-1 with two to play? Smith and James Anderson returning for a showdown at Old Trafford. Maybe, just maybe, the Ashes still up grabs at The Oval in mid-September.
And Headingley, through the exploits of England’s new hero Archer, believed. On a first day when Archer shone through the gloom to roll Australia, he was cheered every time he touched the ball in the field and had his name sung beneath the Western Terrace long after the close.
The contrast on Friday could not have been more stark. As an overbowled Archer hobbled off with cramp in the evening session, the Terrace was already on the way to being empty.
Headingley’s belief had been snatched away by the latest failure of an England batting line-up that should be encased in bubble wrap and put in a box marked ‘fragile’. Like a child learning to walk, it falls over as much as it stays upright.
Friday’s optimism, the hope that England would take this battle into the fourth and fifth Tests, lasted 23 deliveries.
- ‘This was England’s chance – it feels like the Ashes are gone’
- England’s Ashes hopes all but over after collapse to 67 all out
That was the time it took Josh Hazlewood to entice a wild swipe from Jason Roy. Not that Roy was alone in being guilty of reckless driving. Three others followed and another three were bounced out.
Australia were remorseless. Hazlewood was the spearhead of a faultless attack and David Warner did more to endear himself to the English crowds with four slip catches. He celebrated holding Joe Root like a man who had just been told he won’t be booed again this summer.
A total as meagre as 67 wasn’t even England’s lowest of the past two years, but of the four times they have been bowled out for less than 100 in that time, this was surely the most disappointing.
At first, there was anger. “This is Test Cricket!” exclaimed one exasperated fan in Headingley’s new stand as another loose drive ended in the hands of Warner.
Then, gallows humour. Joe Denly had gained an unwanted record when his 12 became the lowest ever to top-score in an England Test innings.
As the statistical nugget made its way around the crowd, one man consoled himself by saying “at least I was here to see it”.
There was a brief attempt by the Western Terrace to rally the home side, but when they sang “the mighty, mighty England”, it seemed like a hollow claim. When England returned to the field after tea, it barely drew any attention.
At the centre of it all was Root, who endured one of the more miserable days of a captaincy reign that veers from big wins to bigger defeats with little in between.
A second successive duck will only intensify the debate over his decision to move from his favoured number four to plug the gap at three.
The idea of asking the best player to weaken his own game in order to mask the deficiencies of others is starting to look as WISe as asking Lionel Messi to play in defence because the regular centre-back will cause his team less damage if he goes on the wing.
As he tried to marshal his troops in the field, looking more animated than any other time during his time in charge, Root shelled the simplest of catches at first slip.
Captaining your country on your home ground in an Ashes series is the stuff English Cricketing dreams are made of. Root’s nightmares will be stalked by unplayable deliveries from Hazlewood, a snarling Warner and edges from the bat of Marnus Labuschagne that never stick in the hand.
At least Stokes never gave up. His tireless spell could have had Labuschagne three times. In the end, all he to had show for it was a gloved catch off Matthew Wade that was immediately followed by Stuart Broad removing Tim Paine.
It was the scantest of consolations at the end of a dispiriting day, the equivalent of a turkey being paid its bonus after Christmas.
The bank holiday is set to be blessed with scorching temperatures, but there will be barely any Ashes Cricket played under the beautiful sun.
What’s worse is that a series which looked like promising so much looks as good as done before it is even halfway through.