The Ashes: Joe Root feels the pain as defeat looms for England against Australia
Root’s day was bookended by bouts of eye-watering pain after he was struck in the groin area without the protection of a box during the pre-play warm-ups and then clattered again in the tender region by an 85mph delivery that left him buckled over in pain for several minutes in the closing moments of the final session.
But the lasting blow was dealt after he bravely resumed the battle, nicking Mitch Starc outside off stump just four deliveries before the close of play. His physical discomfort will ease in time, but England’s Ashes may not if they slip 2-0 with three to play.
They will head into the final day on 82 for four, with the victory target of 468 a non-factor as they instead look to block out three full sessions against opponents who have been routinely ruthless with the ball.
Stokes, who showed the right kind of bloody-minded intent with an unbeaten three for 40 balls, does not know how to give up on a lost cause but he will need major back-up from the likes of Ollie Pope and Jos Buttler if he is to take it close.
Australia have spent the overwhelming majority of the day/nighter in Adelaide in control and now need six more wickets to wrap up a deserved victory.
England’s trip has already suffered several notable setbacks but Sunday began with a fresh layer of indignity, with news coming through that Root would not be able to lead the side out due to a below-the-belt blow.
He had been taking throwdowns from spin coach Jeetan Patel without one key piece of equipment when an awkward bounce left him requiring a precautionary trip to hospital.
Stokes deputised in the afternoon, which began with Australia 282 ahead on 45 for one. Despite the overbearing match situation, England rallied to the tune of three wickets for 10 runs.
James Anderson made short work of nightwatch Michael Neser, Stuart Broad outclassed the off-form Marcus Harris and Ollie Robinson had Steve Smith caught with a lifter into the rib-cage.
But it was another rollercoaster for Buttler behind the stumps, with two athletic one-handed catches to see off Harris and Smith, but only after he had put down the Australia captain first ball for a third drop of the match.
Broad was the unlucky bowler and can also count himself unfortunate not to have removed Smith second ball, having got the wrong end of a devilishly tight lbw decision. On both occasions he had begun thrusting his arms out in celebration, only for Buttler handiwork and umpire Rod Tucker to deny him.
From there Marnus Labuschagne and Travis Head righted the ship with an aggressive stand of 89, both men making matching 51s in a period that saw Stokes and Chris Woakes leak runs before Robinson made an unexpected cameo as a spinner.
The sight of the 6ft 6in seamer rolling his way through three overs of inoffensive twirlers took what has been a deflating visit to South Australia into fresh and faintly bizarre territory and did little to polish the Ashes brand.
In the absence of the dropped Jack Leach, England leaned into the trend of occasional spin with four of the last five wickets split between Root and Dawid Malan.
Malan has some previous in first-class cricket but the image of him dismissing the classy Labuschagne with his rough and ready leg-spin, courtesy of a brilliant Stokes catch will go down as a puzzler.
The declaration left eight overs for England to bat before the tea interval, but two was all it took for Jhye Richardson to find a ball with Haseeb Hameed’s name on it, kicking one up just outside off stump and taking the glove. He left for a six-ball duck and England’s opening stands on tour now stand at nought, 23, seven and four.
Rory Burns was beaten a couple of times by his nemesis Starc but survived 19 balls in the left-armer’s opening spell, a watershed of sorts given recent history between the pair.
Nathan Lyon held court after the break, wheeling away as he tested the mettle of both Burns and Malan, but the duo chipped 115 deliveries and 44 runs off the ledger before the latter gave way for 20.
One ball after an uncharacteristic drop by Smith, Malan was lbw to the skiddy pace of Neser, bringing Root the middle under the tricky twilight conditions. His technique reliable enough to see him through the notoriously taxing period but Burns scrapped away for 34 in 95 balls before Richardson built the pressure and snagged the edge.
Root and Stokes appeared dead set on dropping anchor for day five but when Starc floored the skipper with a horrible impact that saw him take five minutes out before gingerly taking guard, the mood was broken. He gamely got a couple of drives away but, with the seconds ticking down to stumps, he followed one and nicked behind to make a bruising day even more bitter.