England’s Test against Ireland hangs in the balance despite nightwatchman Jack Leach making 92 at Lord’s today.
Leach’s second-wicket stand of 145 with Jason Roy, who hit 72, looked to have nullified the damage of England being 85 all out in their first innings.
But Leach missing out on becoming the first England nightwatchman to make a Test century was part of a collapse of 4-23 and 7-77.
At 248-8, England were just 126 ahead, only for Sam Curran to launch an audacious counter-attack of 37 from 21 balls.
With Stuart Broad also battling to 21 not out, England had reached 303-9 – a lead of 181 – when the threat of lightning and then rain ended the second day’s play.
It sets up an intriguing finale, when Ireland – playing in only their third Test – will have the opportunity to pull off one of the greatest shocks of all time.
Even if England do not add any further runs on Friday morning, the chase on a slow pitch and in conditions offering movement will be a tricky one.
Still, should England’s bowlers save them once more, it will not mask the disappointment of such a substandard performance just a week before the Ashes begin.
The last three days of international cricket at Lord’s have been extraordinary.
First was that heart-stopping World Cup final, then England being bowled out before lunch on day one of this match, then, perhaps most unlikely of all, the runs made by Leach.
His comfort at the crease made a mockery of the struggles of England’s recognised batsmen and the fact remains that, without him, England may have already lost this match.
While England again contributed to their own problems, credit must be given to Ireland, who toiled in 37C heat when Leach and Roy were together.
Although catches went down and batting was being made to look comfortable, Ireland stuck to their task with tenacity to avoid being batted out of the game.
Regardless of the result on Friday – either England being bowled to victory or Ireland pulling off the most famous of wins – another memorable day is in prospect.
Left-hander Leach, playing in his first home Test, batted number 11 in the first innings yet found himself opening when England had to survive one over on Wednesday evening.
Bespectacled, a sufferer of Crohn’s disease and with a previous highest score this season of nine, he was an unlikely batting hero but compiled an innings of patience, sound judgement and touches of class.
When play began, Leach looked much more assured than the scratchy Rory Burns, who needlessly pushed at a wide ball to be caught behind off Boyd Rankin for only six.
Leach enjoyed some fortune – on 64 he survived a very tough chance to leg slip and on 72 a much more straightforward catch was put down by wicketkeeper Gary Wilson, both off pace bowler Rankin.
He played cuts and drives in the company of debutant Roy, who overcame a skittish start to time the ball sweetly and recapture his form of the World Cup.
It was Roy who began the collapse, bowled playing a loose drive at Stuart Thompson, leaving Leach to inch towards history.
He was dropped at second slip by Mark Adair off Tim Murtagh, only to be held by the same man later the same over and depart to a rousing ovation.
Leach had laid England a platform, one from which they failed to build thanks to a repeat of some of Wednesday’s awful batting, Ireland’s persistence and a calamitous run-out.
It was Joe Denly who fell victim when Joe Root sent him back, a gift to Ireland that was matched by the loose drives of Root and Chris Woakes, both caught behind off debutant Adair.
By the time they fell, Jonny Bairstow was lbw to Adair to complete a pair and Moeen Ali poked Rankin behind. Both look horribly out of form before the Ashes.
With England in danger of subsiding, Curran countered, flaying the ball through the off side and swatting a six apiece over fine leg and long-off.
He eventually played a shot too many and was caught at deep square leg off Thompson, leaving Broad to eke out more runs with last man Olly Stone until the weather intervened.