Joe Root fumbled then tried in vain to grab the straight-forward chance that had somehow evaded his grasp. It was not quite the moment the England captain dropped the Ashes but it was the piece of calamitous cricket that epitomised his side’s sorry demise.
By the time Root, his brain surely scrambled by England’s ineptitude, handed the fortunate Marnus Labuschagne that reprieve at slip off an exasperated Ben Stokes, Australia were already 200 ahead and the captain’s ship had long since sailed.
They had extended that lead to 283 by the close of a decisive second day of this third Test and, with four wickets left, can progress with confidence in the Headingley sunshine on Saturday towards a victory that would give them an unassailable 2-0 Ashes lead.
Joe Root’s side were bowled out for 67 and now face losing the chance of reclaiming the Ashes after calamitous cricket
Jason Roy walks off the pitch after Josh Hazlewood managed to get the England opener out in a poor display from the hosts
Only a miracle in the form of a proper display of first-class batting can possibly save England now and, quite frankly, any sort of discipline and application looks beyond this sorry, impatient collection of frenetic hitters masquerading as Test match batsmen.
And the whole sorry mess was summed up by the sight of Jofra Archer, the man with the talent to lift England to what should be the brightest of futures, limping off with cramp towards the close, overworked and in danger of being broken in his second Test.
This was nothing short of an abject surrender of the Ashes. This was as crushingly deflating as the World Cup was thrillingly inspiring. This came as close as it is possible to get to taking the gloss off that glorious day at Lord’s little more than a month ago.
England were pathetic on Friday. And gutless. There is no other way to describe the way they hurtled to 67 all out – yes, 67 – in perfect batting conditions when they had a golden opportunity to wrest total control of this third Test and quite possibly the series.
And it was a surrender that leaves the unlikely figure of Tim Paine with one hand on the precious urn and Root having to face up to the ramifications of becoming the first England captain to lose the Ashes at home since the bad old days of Aussie dominance.
There can be no excuses. No mitigating circumstances by giving credit to what is a mightily impressive Australian bowling line-up. Every roll of the dice since Edgbaston has gone England’s way and they have tossed every advantage they have had away.
Marnus Labuschagne of Australia salutes the crowd after reaching his half century during day two of the third Ashes Test
Ben Stokes tried to salvage some pride for England as he took the wicket of Matthew Wade and looked exhausted on Friday
It was easy to fall for it. Easy to think England really were back in the Ashes hunt when they grabbed the momentum at Lord’s and then came up against an Australian side here without the man who had been the difference between the sides in Steve Smith.
And easy to believe England were well on top when they bowled Australia out for 179 under gloomy Headingley skies on the first day and could look forward to batting in sunshine on what should have been a productive second day. How wrong we were. How foolish to believe that the Ashes were coming home. They are surely staying with an Australia side who only need to draw this series.
Only Root himself could possibly consider himself unlucky in the face of admittedly excellent bowling from Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins on Friday. He did not exactly receive an unplayable ball from Hazlewood but it was not far off.
The rest gave it all away, just gifted their wickets to Australia by forgetting the basics of Test batting and trying to get through the new ball and instead being in far too much of a hurry to impose themselves on the Australians.
The ill-fated experiment of opening with white-ball destroyer Jason Roy must surely be consigned to history now unless he confounds all expectations in the second innings here. It was worth a try but if he does have a Test future it is in the middle order.
There must be a question mark, too, over the longevity of Joe Denly even if he could point to the fact he was England’s top scorer here. The fact that he edged seven of his 49 balls and played and missed at a further 16 on his way to 12 says it all.
Stokes looks frustrated as Australia built a lead of 283 on day three and England face a tough task to reclaim the Ashes
Earlier Stokes was given out when he faced James Pattinson and was caught by David Warner for just eight runs
And to add insult to injury England saw their nemesis David Warner, who had battled his way back to 61 with the bat on Thursday, regaining form in the field too by clinging on to four sharp catches at slip.
It was all over a little more than half an hour after lunch, a packed Headingley crowd barely able to believe what they were seeing as the reality of the desperation of England’s plight hit home.
And it was a plight not even Archer and Stuart Broad could rescue as Australia slowly but surely batted their way to a near impregnable position even though they again showed they are a highly vulnerable batting side themselves in losing six more wickets.
How quickly the tide turned and how another doughty but charmed effort by Smith’s replacement in Labuschagne emphasised that Australia were back truly in control. First Labuschagne was reprieved by that Root fumble on 14. Then he was given out by Chris Gaffaney on 24 caught behind off Stokes only for the review to prove there was no touch.
Then Labuschagne was shown by another review to have edged the deserving Stokes through to Jonny Bairstow on 35 only for the wicket to be ruled out by a no ball and finally a diving Bairstow dropped him off Stokes again on 42. He is somehow still there on 53 even though 26 wickets have fallen in barely a day and a half of Test cricket. Hardly a ringing endorsement for modern Test batting.
England must do better second time around for the sake of their pride but it would be no surprise if they capitulate when they bat again and the Ashes could conceivably be all over bar the shouting today.
And when it is over serious questions must be asked about the damage England’s white-ball prioritising has done to their Test cricket. And of a captain in Root who is now facing his second Ashes defeat. And whether there is a problem between coach Trevor Bayliss and national selector Ed Smith over the make-up and batting order of this team.
That’s just for starters. So many questions and so few answers in a momentous summer that is suddenly in danger of turning very sour
Joe Root fumbles an easy catch which proved costly as Labuschagne reached his half century and finished the day not out
Australia can progress with confidence on Saturday towards a victory that would give them an unassailable 2-0 Ashes lead