Yes, England battled hard on the fifth day in Old Trafford. Yes, the batsmen showed a bit more application. Yes, the tailenders put on a steely rearguard to take the match deep into the Manchester sunset on the final day of the Test. However, all this wasn’t enough to stop Australia retaining the Ashes in England for the first time in 18 years. They needed more. Much more. Not just in the match but right through the series.
As the raucous Australian celebrations extended into the dusk, the English team were left to ponder why do they keep getting into positions which require miracles?
One of the major reasons they keep falling behind is their batting failures. The English batsmen haven’t lived up to their lofty standards and it’s been a problem for quite some time now.
Steve Smith has been the difference between the two sides. This is his Ashes. He’s the fulcrum around which the Australian batting was supposed to revolve. He’s lived up to those expectations, in fact outlived. The pivot has performed in every match but the important thing is, his support system in the batting line-up too has clicked at crucial junctures.
In Manchester, Smith, on his return, found support from Marnus Labuschagne after losing openers David Warner and Marcus Harris in the first seven overs of the Test. In fact, it was Labuschagne who took the lead before Smith took over to score a double ton. Then Tim Paine (58) finally put the batsman beside his wicket-keeper profile along with Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon to propel Australia to a daunting 497/8 declared.
In the second innings, while tottering at 44/4, Matthew Wade and Paine again provided the support that Smith needed in a somewhat tricky situation to take the game away from England and set up a win.
The England pivot was supposed to be Joe Root, and then to an extent Ben Stokes. The England captain hasn’t lived up to his potential and expectations with an average of 30, his struggles underlined by troubles against the straight ball. England can’t keep expecting miracles from Stokes every time he walks out to the middle. He didn’t fire in Manchester and there was no one in the middle order who could create an impact on a consistent basis.
In Manchester, England fell short by 196 runs in the first innings which more or less placed Australia’s one hand on the Ashes.
Rory Burns, Joe Denly have impressed in patches. There was no one man consistently performing every match and the support system coming to the rescue. Jos Buttler has massively underperformed with an average of 16.25, Jonny Baristow has disappointed with an average of 25.42. Jason Roy has endured a tough start to his Test career, averaging just 13.75 in the series with Australian bowlers exposing his technical flaws. Even the restructuring of the batting order to shift him to the middle order didn’t help.
England have averaged 24.37 per wicket, seven runs less than Australia’s 31.43. The home team have stitched three hundred plus partnerships, three less than Australia’s six. In a series of fine margins amidst manifestation of quality seam and swing bowling, these small differences are game changers.
Unsurprisingly, Roy, hanging on tenterhooks, has been dropped for the fifth Test. Ben Stokes will bat at No 4 and won’t bowl due to a shoulder injury. Craig Overton also misses out while Chris Woakes and Sam Curran come in as England announced their playing XI on the eve of the match.
Ashes could make or break careers, we have seen it in the past. There will be some who would be on the precipice. A loss in the fifth Test, could prove to be the melting point. With the Oval usually representing a flat track, it offers the under fire batsmen a chance to exercise damage limitation.
It’s not just the batsmen, the bowlers too will still be losing sleep, over the ‘How to get Steve Smith out?’ question. For most of the series he’s seemed unconquerable but there have been times where he’s ridden his luck. England need to take those half chances coming their way.
Australia’s Ashes retention also underlined the importance of having six quality fit fast bowlers and the ability to manage them meticulously. Langer, Paine have done an impressive job with the rotation with every pacer making an impact at crucial junctures while sticking to the new Aussie mantra of discipline. The choke until submission strategy has been a tactical masterstroke.
Paine might have struggled with his reviews this series but his captaincy stood out on the final day of the Manchester Test where he rotated his bowlers well, got his fields right and the decision of handing over the ball to Labuschagne against Jack Leach was a masterstroke. It’s been quite a ride for Paine in the last two years, from contemplating retirement to taking over the reins of a team embroiled in one of the biggest controversies to hit cricket to changing the culture of the team. And now, he is on the cusp of being the first captain in 18 years since Steve Waugh to win the Ashes series in England.
The fifth Test might give the captain a chance to provide Pat Cummins a breather who is the only Aussie pacer to have played all the Tests in this series, he also played all the matches in the World Cup and had bowled 164 overs, more than any pacer in this series. He’s been the standout Aussie pacer alongside Josh Hazlewood.
James Pattinson has been left out of the 12 for the Test. There are chances that Peter Siddle might come in for one of the three pacers who played the Manchester Test.
While Smith has papered over the Australian batting cracks, Australia can’t ignore the opening woes. Their opening partnership has averaged just 7.75. David Warner has looked more lost than a drunk man that falls asleep on the train and wakes up at the depot, against Stuart Broad. Marcus Harris has stammered in four innings since replacing Cameron Bancroft. Warner, however, has his captain’s backing.
“He’s (Warner) a really important part of our team,” Paine said on the eve of the fifth Test. “He hasn’t had the series he would’ve liked but two hits ago he got 60-odd in the toughest conditions at Headingley. I’ve got full confidence in David that when he does click into gear he’s going to win us a Test match and I think it’s going to be this one.”
Travis Head, though, who has averaged 27.28 in the series, has been dropped in favour of Mitchell Marsh with an eye on relieving the workload of the bowlers.
If the rest of the Aussie batting clicks, England are in for a tough time at The Oval. The fact that Australia will go all out in pursuit of winning the Ashes echoed in Paine’s words.
“It’s nice that we have retained them (Ashes) already going into this Test match but one of the reasons we’re waiting on making a call on our team and the best makeup of it and what’s right for the players is because we see this as one of the biggest Test matches we’re going to play.
“We want to be here at the end of this Test as a winning team that’s won the Test match, won the series and hold that urn up rather than let it peter out to a draw or a loss. It won’t be the same for us. This Test match is huge. There’s also the Test Championship now which is really important. There’s no such thing as dead rubbers and certainly against England there’s never a dead rubber. We’re up for it. We’re ready to go.”
This is Trevor Bayliss’ last match as the England coach. While he has managed to transform England’s white-ball fortunes, the team is still a work in progress. England can make his farewell sweeter with a win in the final test.
England have had a decent record against Australia at The Oval, winning 16 of the 37 matches with seven losses and 14 draws. However, if they manage to glance at the scorecard of the Test the last time the two teams met at the venue, the feeling won’t be too dissimilar to the present day, for they will again find a three-figure score (143) against Smith’s name along with the words: Man of the Match. If they travel back in time two years further, the story will be the same, except that they won’t find a Man of the Match in front of his name. (138 in the first innings). In 2015, England ended up being thrashed by an innings while in 2013, they managed a draw.
England haven’t lost a home series since losing to Sri Lanka in 2014. And if they manage to win at The Oval, it will be the first time since 1972 that the Ashes will be drawn.
The man who is on a Bradmanesque run has the chance to break Don’s record of most runs in a Test series. With 304 more required to break the 974-run benchmark set by Don in 1930, it looks farfetched, but with Smith in this form, it’s not impossible. He also needs just 99 runs to go past his highest series tally of 769 achieved against India in 2014-15 home series.
This English ride which started off in a blistering fashion with the World Cup win has veered off sharply along its summer journey. There is still a chance for a little course correction. It’s up to the batsmen now to make sure that the ride doesn’t get lost in oblivion at The Oval.