Denly and Stokes build England’s chance for series-levelling win

England 294 and 313 for 8 (Denly 94, Stokes 67) lead Australia 225 by 382 runs

The urn is gone, but England gave themselves a terrific chance of levelling the series – in what would be the first drawn Ashes since 1972 – following a day of steady accumulation under the autumn sunshine, led by Joe Denly, who fell six runs short of a maiden Test century, and Ben Stokes who ensured he will finish as the team’s leading scorer.

By the close England led by 382, anchored around the 127 stand between Denly and Stokes then supplemented by more runs from Jos Buttler. Australia’s attack remained wholehearted, and took six wickets during the final session, but the overall demeanor was of a weary group who had peaked with the emotional high of last week in Manchester.

Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood kept pounding away, yet had 1 for 112 to show for it, and Nathan Lyon battled against uncertain form and a painful spinning finger to finish with 3 for 65, but there wasn’t a match-turning spell. The verbals went up a level as well with the umpires briefly stepping in during the morning session.

It was Denly who did much to ensure England didn’t relinquish the good work of the second day, which secured a 69-run lead, and was within touching distance of a century when he was squared up by some late swing from Peter Siddle and edged to slip. Whether three figures would have helped the Denlys come up with a name for their newborn daughter who arrived yesterday we’ll never know.

He made Australia pay for dropping him before scoring on the second evening, the chance to Marcus Harris leaving the opener needing seven stitches in split webbing and unable to field. The rest of the innings wasn’t without alarm – he would have been lbw on 54 if Australia had reviewed an appeal from Mitchell Marsh – and was struck a fierce blow from Cummins which broke his box, but overall it was the most assured Denly had looked at Test level. Whatever the future holds for him he has shown considerable mental strength to take on the opening role in these last two Tests.

His early aggression against Lyon helped set the tone for England as he skipped down the pitch and lofted a straight six. The shot took the opening stand to 37 which marked a new high point for opening pairs this English season in what have been tough conditions. Denly and Rory Burns carried their partnership to 53 before Burns toe-ended a cut against Lyon to end his series with an impressive tally of 390 runs.

Joe Root played positively before a tired push forward at Lyon resulted in an outside edge to slip from a ball that didn’t turn. Such has been the frailties of England’s batting that it couldn’t be ruled out that they would squander their position, but what followed was one of the more positive stands they have produced this series.

Stokes offered a tough chance to Steven Smith at slip on 7 when he cut Lyon before becoming increasingly positive against the offspinner, including a flat six to deep square leg which brought up his fifty from 89 balls, although he would have been out on 52 had Matthew Wade hit direct from mid-on. Stokes looked in the mood to race Denly towards three figures when he drove Siddle for a brace of boundaries, but Lyon then ripped one which would have provided as much encouragement for Jack Leach as it did Australia.

Though Denly fell three overs later, this time Australia did not look like a team who believed they could run through the rest of England’s batting. In a rare position of relative freedom, with the lead approaching 300, the middle order were keen to play their shots. Jonny Bairstow edged Marsh to slip, to finish with a series return of 214 runs that should at least bring a debate around his position, but Buttler played with confidence on the back of his crucial first-innings runs. However, there was another missed review against Tim Paine’s name when he didn’t ask for an lbw against Buttler on 19 when he played back to Lyon though, again, the on-field umpiring did not go Australia’s way.

Cummins took the second new ball and had Sam Curran caught down the legside, but the tanks were nearly empty. However, in a match where Australia have missed chances they were able to pull off two fantastic catches late in the day. Smith, who will carry Australia’s batting hopes, pulled off a stunner at second slip, diving to his right, to remove Chris Woakes then next ball Marnus Labuschagne claimed something equally good running in from deep square to grab Buttler’s top edge. Fielding can often be a window into a team’s mindset and if they’ve saved their best for last who knows what the chase will bring.