Australia has had as much success as any cricketing nation in the modern era, but the team has also become expert at losing Tests in agonising fashion.
Ben Stokes added one more to that history in the third Test of the current Ashes series, and now Australia has to pick up the pieces for the fourth Test at Old Trafford.
Unfortunately, their past efforts don’t paint a pretty picture.
Australia loses the unlosable — 1981
What happened? In a slightly longer form, in the third Test of the 1981 Ashes series in England, Australia had a 227-run lead after the first innings and sent England in to bat again. The Aussies had England 6-133 with only out-of-form all-rounder Ian Botham left to bat with the tail. Sounding familiar yet?
Like Ben Stokes, Ian Botham seemed composed even when swinging violently for the fences. (YouTube: Jimmy Pince)
With England 500-1 outsiders, Botham belted 149 off 148 to give England a 129-run lead and then Bob Willis (8-43) ripped through the Aussie batsmen to have them all out for 111, 19 runs short of victory.
What happened next? Australia brought in batsman Martin Kent for Trevor Chappell, and Rodney Hogg replaced Geoff Lawson for the next Test at Edgbaston (more on this place later).
Australia was again chasing a meagre total — just 151 — and then, like a bad smell, Botham returned. This time he did it with the ball, taking the last five wickets of the innings to send the Aussies tumbling from the safety of 5-114, to 121 all out.
Having twice snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, Australia left the trophy in English hands with a 102-run loss in the next Test.
What did we learn? Sometimes the cricket gods are cruel and they really like it when all-rounders from north-west England (even if it is by way of Christchurch) tear strips off Australia. But also, confidence players with immense talent, like Stokes and Botham, only need to be given a sniff and then there may be nothing you can do to stop them.
Australia goes down in the closest Test — 1993
Between 1976 and 1995 Australia never beat the West Indies in a Test series. In that stretch, this was possibly the most heartbreaking and definitely the closest loss of all.
What happened? Having led some of Australia’s worst Test teams through the era that belonged to Malcom Marshall, Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Andy Roberts et al, Allan Border finally had an excellent side to take on a West Indies squad that, while still boasting Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, was not quite as formidable.
The tension got to the grizzled Allan Border (top left) and fresh-faced Justin Langer (front) alike. (YouTube: ilovemysports2000)
Australia led the five-match series 1-0 heading into the fourth game and was only chasing 186 to win the series in the fourth Test in Adelaide. On the back of debutant Justin Langer’s fighting 54 off 146 balls, Australia got within one run of the West Indies’ total when Craig McDermott was dubiously given out to end the innings.
It remains the closest loss (by number of runs) in Test history and was marked by footage of captain Border furiously pegging a cricket ball, which he had been nervously tossing from hand to hand seemingly since his dismissal during a collapse of 4-10, into the ground of the Australian observation deck.
What happened next? For the decider in Perth, Langer was bumped up to open at the expense of Mark Taylor, who had failed to pass 50 through eight innings to start the series and scored 1 and 7 at Adelaide. Paceman Jo Angel also replaced spinner Tim May, who was pivotal in helping Australia come so close in the previous game.
But the West Indians had found their killer instinct. Curtly Ambrose (7-25) blasted Australia out to the tune of 119 in the first innings, the batsmen cobbled together a solid 322, then Australia was all out for 178 in the second innings to lose by an innings and 25 runs.
From as close as you can get to one of the most brutal losses imaginable. Series gone, streak continued, Border left to stew.
What did we learn? Momentum. Is. Real.
An incredibly close game should hammer home that there really isn’t much separating the teams, but there’s always the chance it will instead completely demoralise the losers and give the victors a massive boost.
South Africa returns to heap more pain on Australia — 1994
South Africa’s first series against Australia after a 20-plus-year ban from international cricket included the third in Allan Border’s trio of his most painful Test losses — by five runs in Sydney.
What happened? There is an air of the mythic about so many South African players during the nation’s 21-year ban from international cricket, and Fanie de Villiers’s destruction of Australia in the sixth-smallest Test loss (by runs scored) only added to that.
In just his second five-day game, with all eyes on the rapid Allan ‘White Lightning’ Donald, de Villiers dismantled an Australian side chasing just 117 to win with an expert use of medium-fast swing bowling.
What happened next? Australia brought in Steve Waugh and Paul Reiffel for Damien Martyn and Glenn McGrath, and for the first and only time on this list, Australia actually won the next game in Adelaide. Waugh’s first-innings 164 set up a comfortable 191-run victory in the third and final Test of the series.
What did we learn? When your batsmen aren’t getting the job done, bringing back a transcendent talent (ideally named Steve) can be the difference, especially if the bones of a great side are in place around them.
The greatest Test in the greatest series — 2005
Michael Kasprowicz was left despondent after he gloved a ball behind. (Reuters: Darren Staples)
After a star-studded Aussie side beat seven shades out of England in the opening Ashes Test at Lord’s, the hosts got back into what turned out to be one of the best series of all time with a famous two-run win at Edgbaston.
What happened? As he did so many times during the 2005 Ashes, Shane Warne put Australia on his back in Birmingham — first taking 6-46 to keep the game within reach with a chase of 282, then scoring 42 runs after no specialist batsman managed to pass 31.
He trod on his own stumps with the team still 62 runs short of victory, and the final-wicket partnership of Brett Lee and Michael Kasprowicz (playing in place of the injured McGrath) played beyond themselves to push the game further than anyone expected. But all good things must come to an end and, just as it was against the West Indies, it was an Australian number 11 gloving through to the keeper that left Australia painfully short.
What happened next? Proving that Edgbaston wasn’t a fluke, England stood toe to toe with Australia in the next game at Old Trafford as the Aussies, this time Lee and McGrath with bat in hand, managed to hold on for a weather-assisted draw with one wicket left.
The raucous celebrations for a draw signalled that this was not a normal Ashes series and the English, buoyed by the Edgbaston win and Australia’s joy at breaking even in Manchester, won at Trent Bridge and drew the last Test to secure a famous win.
What did we learn? Those sort of wins can be real tide-turners in a series. In 2005, it gave England real belief that it good hang with the Australians and we know what happened then.
What does all this tell us about Old Trafford this time around?
Steve Smith’s return completely changes the complexion of the Australian team. (AP: Alastair Grant)
Unlike the Stokes-inflicted (with some Aussie blunders thrown in for good measure) Headingley loss, these were all failures by Australia’s batsmen — falling short often in the face of exceptional bowling, usually while chasing small totals. Those sorts of collapses, as we’ve seen with more recent iterations of the Australian Test team, can be catastrophic and contagious.
The good news for Australia is Steve Smith is back in a batting line-up that, while it didn’t fail, wasn’t exceptional in Leeds.
Smith, just as his namesake of the Waugh variety did against South Africa, has proved he can elevate a team above its station with his brilliant batting. He has been doing it for the past two years did it in the first one-and-a-half Tests of this series. With his return, alongside in-form replacement Marnus Labuschagne, the top and middle order feels a little less fragile.
As for Australia’s inability to get Stokes out at Headingley, the return of Mitchell Starc should not be seen as some sort of super-salve.
His only five-wicket hauls since dismantling South Africa in Durban last year came against a struggling Sri Lankan side at Manuka Oval in February. His ability to blow apart tail-enders’ stumps, exhibited in the Derby tour match that assured his selection, would have come in handy, but there is a reason selectors opted not to pick him for the first three games.
All told, turning things around after such a demoralising loss, having worked so hard to get into a series-winning position (a la 1993), will be more difficult than simply bouncing back from any other loss.
Tim Paine, Justin Langer, Steve Smith and the rest of the team have a mighty task ahead of them in Manchester.