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Madness of Test cricket sets up compelling finish to Lord's drama

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Langer frustrated by potentially game-changing mistakes (1:20)

Australia coach bemoaned the dropped catches and missed DRS reviews by his side on day 4 of the Lord's Ashes Test. (1:20)

Test cricket is a shambles, and it is utterly compelling.

There is no way on earth that a match that has lost five sessions to rain and hadn't even reached the third innings until tea on the fourth day should be hurtling towards a position in which a positive result is now more likely than a draw.

But we've known all along that the sport moves to an alternative rhythm these days, and as a pulsating Saturday at Lord's concluded with England's most potent duo, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler, overcoming their team's anxieties to keep their powder dry for a final push, it was clear that the pace of the format is now more thrash metal than the Green Sleeves of old.

"This is why we love Test cricket so much," said Justin Langer, Australia's head coach, at the close. "Who would have thought it? We're playing at Lord's, we've lost a couple of days to rain, and it's absolutely game on tomorrow."

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Where's your money now? Until Jofra Archer's extraordinary exploits, you'd have assumed that any fourth-innings target would have favoured the Aussies, simply because in Steven Smith they possess a batsman who can operate in a different dimension to his peers.

But now, all of a sudden, the parameters have shifted. Nobody in their right minds will expect England to still be batting by the end of this contest, which means Australia - with a battered and bruised Smith liable to be physically fit, if not quite in his pre-Archer mental zone - could be left with a tough dilemma in the denouement.

More early success from their battery of quicks, and better luck (particularly with lbws) from the ever-probing Nathan Lyon, and they could give themselves a couple of sessions in which to close out an Ashes-crushing 2-0 lead. But if England's middle order find anything resembling their gung-ho former selves (let's face it, dying wondering is hardly going to be their chosen tactic…) the door could yet be ajar to sneak an improbable series-squaring win.

"We probably went searching a little bit after getting off to a great start today," said Langer. "It's a tough wicket to bat on, which I don't mind, and it's going to be a great day's Test cricket tomorrow. I guess the only issue is that there's only one day left in it, so there's lots of scenarios that can play out here. But it's game on, I reckon."

Either way, it promises to be one of the most absorbing final days of Ashes cricket since the 2005 Ashes - that year's second Test also came down to a faintly memorable Sunday shoot-out - and then as now, there's an 18-year itch that is asking to be scratched, for incredibly it's been that long since Australia last won the Ashes on English soil, and no Ashes team since Don Bradman's in 1936-37 has ever come back from being 2-0 down.

"When I envisaged Test and Ashes cricket as a child, this is what I envisaged it being like today," said Chris Woakes, who finished the job that Archer had started by pinning Smith lbw for 92 shortly after the brave resumption of his innings.

"An intense game of Ashes cricket is quite draining but it's been an amazing game to be part of, and it's pretty much in the balance now. Of course I think we can win the game, but I think all three results are still possible to be honest."

But one thing is for sure. Australia's pack of quicks responded to Archer's usurping of their mantle with a furious, if subtly different, mode of attack, and reconfirmed the fact that they've still got the weapons to defend their hitherto dominant position.

Pat Cummins was supreme from the outset - just as he had been with the bat in the midst of the Archer onslaught - skilfully exposing everything we already knew about England's batting frailties to ensure that another fretful innings panned out in a near-identical fashion to the first: two early wickets in Jason Roy and the hapless Joe Root, two half-formed repair jobs from Joe Denly and Rory Burns, and two more against-type survival grinds from Stokes and Buttler, albeit with their places in the order rightfully switched this time round.

The fact that the damage was not more absolute by the close came down to a combination of Australia's fallibility in the field, with David Warner dropping two clear-cut chances, and their ongoing failure to gauge Lyon's angle into the left-handers, with Burns and Stokes both surviving leg-stump lbw appeals that would have been overturned on review.

"We missed a few in the first Test as well," said Langer. "Obviously the whole world's aware whenever it happens, so it's frustrating, there's no doubt about that. It can change the game, it can change a session, it can change a Test match, it can change a series, so we need to get better at it."

It promises, too, to be a vital day for Root's Test captaincy. A statistic doing the rounds before the match noted that, among men to have led England in 30 or more Tests, Root has the second-highest win percentage behind Mike Brearley. Unfortunately, he also has the second-lowest lose percentage behind David Gower - which is a testament to the ominous fact that his teams have managed just two draws out of 30.

And another stat that cannot be ignored is his flatlining career average. Never mind the subplot about his promotion to No.3, Root's returns have been nosediving since the end of the 2017-18 Ashes, to the extent that he is now averaging 32.82 from his last 18 Tests, having not strayed from a 50-plus average in the preceding four-year period.

On a day when Smith required the fast-bowling spell of the series to remind onlookers of his mortality, the stark reality of Root's first Test golden duck confirmed how far from those Fab Four standards he is now straying. Like Alastair Cook before him, he needs his team to rally round and ensure that the series doesn't end before he can make a telling impact.

Langer, however, believes his team is ready and waiting to take their chances on the final day, for he's under no illusion that plenty will be flying around.

"There's always going to be tension in Test cricket, and with tension comes mistakes. I'm sure there'll be six more opportunities tomorrow, and if that does happen, and we've got a chance to have a run-chase, we'll stay nice and calm, on a very fast outfield, with great value for your shots. And it's hopefully going to be a great run-chase if we can take those six wickets."