Jos Buttler led England’s underdog attempts to take the second Ashes Test all the way to the wire before treading on his stumps to give Australia a 2-0 lead and one hand on the urn.
Buttler’s steel ensured the day/night Test reached a final floodlit session on day five as he clung on for 207 balls and 26 runs – the second longest innings of 55-match career – but he could not save his outclassed team from a 275-run defeat.
With 24 overs left he was ninth man down in unbelievable fashion, stepping deep in his crease and dislodging the bails while pushing Jhye Richardson to cover. It took him a moment to realise what had happened, but Australia could not believe their luck.
That left old-stagers Stuart Broad and James Anderson to fight on alone and the latter fended Richardson to gully at 8.10pm local time to complete the seamer’s decisive five-wicket haul.
The agonising dismissal of captain Joe Root to the last ball on Sunday left England resuming on a fragile 82 for four – an equation that only got worse when Ollie Pope was dismissed by his seventh ball of the day.
Potentially playing for his place in the Boxing Day Test with an average dipping below the 30 mark, the Surrey batter needed to show he could apply himself in adverse conditions but made just four, his third single-figure score in a row.
Mitchell Starc, who has played a terrific hand leading a seam attack deprived of the injured Josh Hazlewood and the isolating Pat Cummins, was responsible but Pope will surely be aware of his own culpability.
At a stage when batting long and leaving as many deliveries as possible was the order of the day it is hard to understand why Pope felt the urge to feel for one that started outside off stump and was shaping further away.
Buttler could have found himself a footnote in the finale when he edged Starc on nought, but wicketkeeper Alex Carey’s refusal to go for the catch paved the way for a stoic resistance from England’s number seven.
He and Ben Stokes were blocking everything in an attempt to blunt the momentum but that allowed Nathan Lyon to wheel away at one end, repeatedly asking the same questions in the expectation that a mistake would creep in.
Stokes had resisted for 77 balls and almost two hours overall but the error did come, lbw as he was beaten by a hint of turn stepping back in his crease. Given the ruthlessness with which Australia wrapped up England in the three previous innings, a clinical kill looked the best bet.
But Buttler grasped the chance to show he is still up for the fight, digging in for an anchoring innings that curbed all of his attacking instincts as Chris Woakes played with unhurried fluency.
Between them they soaked up more than 30 valuable overs either side of the dinner break, sucking the heat out of Lyon’s spell and taking advantage of aggressive fields to pick up the odd boundary.
They went from being an annoyance to a genuine aggravation when they successfully negotiated Starc’s first spell with the last new ball of the match but the fresh Kookaburra was still only eight overs old when Richardson made it pay.
Going full again despite having just been stroked through the covers by Woakes, he got one to dart back at pace and peg back middle stump. That left Buttler to shepherd the tail through the long road ahead.
Ollie Robinson did a share of the lifting, facing 39 balls, but looked as though he needed all the protection Buttler could offer.
He eventually succumbed just before the final break, fending Lyon to slip where Smith made no mistake.
Buttler and Broad successfully pushed matters into one last session, but they still needed luck on their side. Instead, Buttler lost track of his footwork and clipped the base of the stumps with his heel in an otherwise untroubled shot into the cover region.
It was an inglorious dismissal and an ill-fitting end to his personal rearguard. The task ahead was too much for Broad and Anderson, and when Richardson got one to jump towards the shoulder of the number 11’s bat it was all over.
Only one side has ever come back from 2-0 down to win as Ashes series, Australia managing the feat under the great Donald Bradman in 1936/37. A hat-trick of wins in Melbourne, Sydney and Hobart looks well beyond Root’s men at this stage, meaning England are also certain to go home without the prize they came for.