Fall from grace may cost Root captaincy
As Joe Root trudged back to the pavilion, to the sound of wild Australian gloating and with a TV camera shoved in his moosh, it felt as brutal as sport can get.
The England captain's stumps had been demolished by the first ball he'd faced - a peach of a delivery sent through the evening gloom by Pat Cummins, the No. 1 bowler on the planet.
In his last five innings, Root has two golden ducks and another second-ball zero.
And just four balls into their supposed scrap to save the fourth Test and keep the Ashes alive, England were 0-2 - having lost Rory Burns and Root, the only two batsman to make a significant first-innings impression.
The urn is surely lost now.
Ben Stokes' extraordinary heroics to win the Third Test at Headingley were nothing more than a glorious flash-in-the-pan.
And perhaps Root's days as captain will soon be over, too, after another day in which his limitations as a leader were laid bare.
Before Australia's second innings it was vice-captain Stokes, and not Root, who issued the rousing call-to-arms in the team huddle.
Then, after the Aussies were reduced to 44-4, a timid Root held back his strike bowlers, Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer, for too long to snuff out any slim hopes any chances of another miraculous England win.
By his own admission, Root is cream-crackered after a relentless summer of high-pressure cricket.
But England's World Cup triumph will surely not be followed by Ashes glory now, with their remaining batting order - Stokes aside - ill-suited to the task of a final-day dig-in for a draw.
There's no such thing in contemporary cricket as 'Fab Four'. Just 'Terrific Three'. Joe Root is a fine batsman but doesn't belong to the luminous league of Smith, Kohli and Williamson.— Navneet Mundhra (@navneet_mundhra) September 7, 2019
It is almost unthinkable that they can survive an entire day today. It would probably need Stokes and Jack Leach to bat together for two entire sessions.
Once this series is concluded at The Oval next week, the selectors face a difficult decision over the captaincy.
Root shows little instinct for the task, yet the only obvious candidate to take over is Stokes - already carrying such a heavy burden as an all-rounder.
It does not help that Root and Stokes are the only two genuine Test-class batsmen England possess.
England are being beaten by a better team, with one all-time great batsman in Steve Smith and an excellent four-man attack with an insatiable thirst for English blood.
Yet for one crazy hour yesterday afternoon, England had been sensing their most ridiculous victory since the last match.
Their bowling was rapid, the verbals were flying, the body language aggressive and despite a vast first-innings lead of 196, the Aussies looked momentarily rattled.
Broad dismissed David Warner for a third straight duck - much more of this and he'll be handfeeding carrots to his Australian rabbit.
Then Broad claimed the wicket of Marcus Harris and issued a cheery wave as a send-off to Marnus Labuschagne after he'd been trapped by Archer.
Archer, breathing fire again and sending down 90mph missiles after a lacklustre first-innings effort, then sent Travis Head's middle stump flying.
And when Australia's chief chirper Matthew Wade came to the crease at 44-4, having sledged Archer during the England bowler's brief innings, he got it back with both barrels.
Archer even impeded Wade as he went for a run and almost squared up to him when he threatened to attempt a second.
The Old Trafford crowd were crackling as England showed long-overdue fight.
Broad and Archer have been outstanding for long stretches of this series but England's back-up bowling has been a let-down.
By the time Root had reintroduced Archer some time after tea, Smith was like Einstein in batting pads, inventing impossible angles to score boundaries.
England actually got Smith out for his lowest total of the series - yet it was another gem of an innings, 82 from 92 balls, to help set up the declaration before he holed out to Leach.
Some optimists will head here today, imagining another tale of the unexpected.
But this is not Cloud Cuckoo Land, this is Test cricket - the most unforgiving arena in any sport. As Root would surely testify.
This article originally appeared on The Sun and was reproduced with permission.