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The Ashes balance has shifted as Lord's duel looms

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Expert
13th August, 2019
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Prior to the Ashes getting underway, there wasn’t any good reason to doubt England’s tag as favourites.

Home form in the five-day game suggested it, the trend of the past handful of Ashes series in this country suggested it, the enduringly excellent output from James Anderson suggested it, the hosts’ greater batting depth suggested it, the prices being served up by all and sundry in the bookmaking community suggested it, an opener at their favourite hunting ground suggested it.

Come the afternoon of the fifth day at Edgbaston, however, and some cold water had been poured on the aforementioned factors.

From a position of supremacy with Australia reeling at 8-122 after choosing to bat on the Birmingham surface, and later on with a solid first innings lead of 90 that had yet to be wiped out by the time David Warner, Cameron Bancroft and Usman Khawaja’s collective involvement with the bat had concluded, England succumbed in a manner that was both painful to witness and largely unexpected.

Going into the contest, there were questions surrounding three of their top four – only one of which, in the shape of Rory Burns, has been answered heading into Game 2 – but it was the feeling that once Steve Smith had helped engineer a more-than-decent advantage on a pitch any spinner worth their salt would’ve liked to have a go on, the result was virtually inevitable.

England captain Joe Root.

(Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

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I’m not convinced by some of the theories alluding to England suffering a hangover from the World Cup success somehow being responsible for their demise. That strikes of putting two and two together and coming up with anything other than four.

If anything, it should’ve been the opposite with the surge generated by the World Cup manifesting itself in a positive fashion and not proving to be a hindrance.

But anyway, what was made obvious was the fact England are not near where they would want or need to be, and Australia are certainly on the right track.

Issues do tend to appear when a loss has been suffered, just as they disappear when a victory has been earned, so it is worth remembering things are generally never as bad or good as many would like to make out. Hence, the doom-laden and ultra-positive headlines referring to the respective sides should be taken with a generous pinch of salt.

But there has definitely been a shift in the balance.

That shift has only been magnified by the form of Smith (has he really been away from the top table for a year?) and the absence of Anderson.

The New South Welshman was one of the top couple of batsmen in the Test arena – I’d put Virat Kohli alongside him but that’s a debate for another day – before his Cape Town brain fade, and if you had any doubts as to how he would immerse himself back into the fold, then more fool you.

Steve Smith celebrates a century

(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

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His twin centuries at Edgbaston provided a nigh-on perfect portrait of Smith the Test batsman. They were disciplined, they were controlled, they were relentless and they were perfectly pitched.

That Joe Root tried a number of theories in the hope of dislodging him – none of which really looked like working – tells you all you need to know, and until there is a clarity of purpose and direction when Australia’s number four is at the crease, England will have a significant obstacle in their way.

And speaking of obstacles, how the loss of Anderson is dealt with will be of major significance.

The question of what the hosts will do when their all-time leading Test wicket-taker calls it a day has been gently increasing in volume over the past year or so – the Lancastrian is 37, after all – and it has only gone up a notch with his calf playing up.

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Jofra Archer has serious talent, but there are shoes to fill and there are shoes to fill. If he can hit the ground running, on his debut nonetheless, then many fears may prove to be unfounded – but you simply don’t replace the kind of control and skill that Anderson possesses at the drop of a hat.

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But that is how it is and while the contest will not revolve around just a couple of players, I know which team’s shoes I’d rather be in.

England’s record at Lord’s with Australia in opposition isn’t particularly great and, on the flip side, the Aussies generally wear their Sunday best in North London.

Now would be a good time for a change.