Australia finally broke England’s dogged resistance on Sunday to retain the Ashes with a 185-run win on a captivating final day of the fourth Test at Old Trafford.
The home side, set a huge target of 383 for victory, were bowled out for 197 following some spirited lower-order batting, which took the game into the final hour.
Paceman Pat Cummins, the world’s top-ranked Test bowler, led the way for the tourists, taking 4-43 in 24 overs but Steve Smith won the man-of-the-match award for his innings of 211 and 82.
The match ended when Craig Overton, who faced 105 balls, was lbw to Josh Hazlewood for 21 after the tailender’s review failed to overturn umpire Kumar Dharmasena’s decision.
Victory ensured Australia kept hold of the Ashes at 2-1 up with one to play in the five-Test campaign.
If Australia avoid defeat at the Oval next week they will have won their first Test series in England for 18 years.
For Australia captain Tim Paine, appointed after star batsman Smith was stripped of the job following a ball-tampering scandal that also saw him given a 12-month ban, it was a particularly sweet success following his side’s shock one-wicket loss in the third Test at Headingley.
“I’m pretty pumped,” Paine told Sky Sports. “This team has been through a lot.
“The character we have showed shows a lot about the people in our side.”
Jos Buttler, England’s last recognised batsman, faced 111 balls either side of tea, making 34 when crease occupation was the order of the day.
But his patient vigil ended with a misjudgement that saw him bowled playing no shot to a Hazlewood ball that cut back to hit off stump.
Jofra Archer was soon lbw to off-spinner Nathan Lyon yet more than an hour later Overton and Somerset teammate Jack Leach, promoted to No 10 after his last-man heroics helped England win at Headingley, were still there.
But part-time leg-spinner Marnus Labuschagne succeeded where Australia’s frontline bowlers had failed by turned one out of the rough to have Leach caught at short leg by Matthew Wade, with England now 196-9.
‘Smith on another level’
The match was a triumph for Smith, the world’s leading Test batsman, who has now scored 671 runs in the series at an eye-watering average 134.2 including three hundreds, despite missing the third Test with concussion.
“I’m not sure I have ever played better,” said Smith. “I have come back fresh from a year out, but relaxed and chilled out.“
Australia coach Justin Langer added: “We’ve got the best fast bowler (Cummins) in the world and the best Test batsman in the world.
“I thought Virat Kohli was the best batsman I’ve ever seen because of the way he plays in all forms, but Steve Smith… that’s another level.”
England, resuming on their overnight 18-2, got through the first hour of the last day without losing a wicket.
But when Ben Stokes, whose superb 135 not out had sealed the stunning win at Headingley, fell for just one shortly before lunch, England were floundering at 74-4.
England captain Joe Root praised his side for taking the game deep into the fifth day, saying: “I am really proud. Everyone stood up and played bravely.
“We want to level the series. We have to pick ourselves up and turn up at the Oval.
“Steve Smith has been hard work to get out. Ultimately, he was the difference this Test match.”
England started the day with makeshift opener Joe Denly 10 not out and Jason Roy eight not out after Cummins had taken two wickets in two balls on Saturday, including Root for a golden duck.
World Cup-winner Roy, who has struggled to transfer his one-day form into the Test arena, defended solidly until Cummins’s fine-off cutter found a gap between bat and pad to bowl him for 31.
Stokes, who walked out to a huge ovation, had made just one when Cummins cut one back to the left-handed batsman, with wicketkeeper Paine holding a good diving catch off the inside edge.
Denly, 48 not out at lunch, completed a 112-ball fifty when he drove Mitchell Starc down the ground for four.
But he was out for 53 when he gloved Lyon to Labuschagne at short leg.