Old Trafford shapes up as the ultimate Test

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It’s said that players learn more from defeat than victory. This is originally written by The Roar’s Tom Simon.

And there will be plenty to learn about this current crop of Australian cricketers when they’re forced to front up again in Manchester and respond to their historic defeat at Headingley.

Ultimately, there wasn’t much the Australians could have done on Sunday afternoon in Leeds.

Hurricane Stokes was wreaking irrevocable havoc, creating scars that will cut deep within the Australian psyche for decades.

Yes, we can debate until the end of time about dropped catches, fumbled run-outs and umpiring blunders, but that would be to take away from the brilliance of Ben Stokes’ performance.

Anyone who has played at any level of cricket would understand the feeling of helplessness that washes over a fielding side as an opposition player becomes possessed in such a way, with seemingly everything that their willow touches turning to boundaries.

Not only did Stokes level the series, but he singlehandedly upended the narrative surrounding English cricket.

From being bowled out for 67 on the second day, heads were ready to roll.

Joe Root’s resignation speech was being prepared, the top order was told to pack its bags while the administrators at the ECB HQ were finalising their defences against scheduling a World Cup and Ashes back to back and how this didn’t jeopardise their performance against the red ball.

But that Stokes can hit them alright.

James Anderson is also ready to return. The batting order looks solid again.

Most sports fans and those in the media have a somewhat selective memory. The key to sports punditry is that the most recent performance always dictates future performance.

One positive for the tourists will be the sight of Steve Smith slotting back into the Australian XI.

Steve Smith
(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Australia’s best-since-Ricky-Ponting will not face a bigger mental, physical and technical test in his career.

Pre-Edgbaston, Anderson’s ability to swing the ball both ways was tipped as England’s most likely antidote to their Smith run-scoring virus.

Pre- and post-Lord’s, Jofra Archer was predicted and proved to be the only effective cure, bouncing Australia’s key man out of England’s path to victory in Yorkshire.

If Smith can overcome Anderson’s skill in Manchester, let alone conquer the pace, brutality and any residual mental demons from his previous encounter with Archer, Old Trafford shapes as another defining moment of his already illustrious career.

Plenty of players who’ve come before him have been unable to prevail over mental demons after such a barrage that Smith received. But as we witnessed in his return to Test cricket at Edgbaston, Steve Smith is no ordinary player.

Similarly, can Nathan Lyon and Australia’s fast bowlers repair or at least cover up the pain inflicted by Stokes at Headingley?

Lyon has spoken many times about the responsibility he feels to bowl Australia to victory on the final days of Test matches.

Australia’s most prolific off-spinner has bowled brilliantly all series in claiming 14 wickets, with this Test meant to be remembered and celebrated for the achievement of passing the great Dennis Lillee following the dismissal of Joe Root.

Yet it will be the image of the forty-four over old Dukes ball slipping through the GOAT’s normally reliable fingers that is enshrined in Ashes history.

The fact that very next ball he defeated Stokes, had not been for umpire Joel Wilson not raising his finger and similarly writing himself into Ashes folklore, speaks volumes of his character.

You don’t earn 357 Test wickets without a fair dose of resilience.

And as the ninth English wicket is taken at Old Trafford next week, the memories will again resurface. They may fade with time, but never be forgotten.

Just as the memory of Ponting’s decision to bowl in 2005 at Edgbaston and enforcing the follow-on in Kolkata in 2001, the inability to claim a twentieth English wicket in Leeds will haunt Australia for decades to come.

Australia did not claim the match or the series this day.

And yet, Test cricket is all the better for it.

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