The scary prospect of James Anderson’s impending return, the short-ball problems of Aussie skipper Tim Paine and England captain Joe Root’s poor form are three issues hanging over this Ashes as the third Test starts today.
Tim Paine’s short-ball problem
This is the worst possible time for an Australian to be showing fragility against the short ball.
At Lord’s, express quick Jofra Archer caused more carnage with the bouncer than perhaps any Test bowler since Mitch Johnson five years ago.
And that was on a very slow pitch, while the UK press is now tipping the third Test deck will be faster, perhaps even substantially so.
The fact even Smith, the world’s best Test batsman, couldn’t handle Archer’s short ball barrage in the second Test must have a few of the Aussies very concerned.
Paine should be one of them. The Aussie captain has been bullish in the past few days about how he and his teammates will handle Archer.
He told media he plans to keep playing the hook shot, a stroke which along with the pull has brought about his downfall twice in four innings in this Ashes.
That includes a brain fade of a stroke in the first innings of the first Test when he lobbed the ball straight to deep square leg at a time when Australia were under immense pressure.
Paine was a revelation in his first nine months back in the Australian side after making a shock comeback for the 2017-18 Ashes.
Since then, however, he’s averaged just 20 with the bat from nine Tests. With Archer sure to target him with searing short balls for the rest of this series, getting back into form won’t be easy for Paine.
The spectre of James Anderson
Steve Smith’s expected return for the fourth Test is already greatly anticipated. The focus on Smith has, to an extent, drawn attention away from the likely comeback in that same match of England’s best bowler, James Anderson.
While Jofra Archer is currently casting a long shadow over the Australian batting line-up, it is Anderson who has the potential to inflict even greater damage.
In his past 21 Tests in the UK, Anderson has hoarded 107 wickets at 15. So remarkable has been his control over the swing of the Dukes ball that he’s often verged on unplayable during that period.
Pairing the fear factor of Archer with Anderson’s befuddling lateral movement would pose a monumental challenge to the Aussie batsmen, including Smith.
Anderson yesterday made his comeback from a calf strain in county second XI cricket. He now has 13 days to prepare for the fourth Test at his home ground, Old Trafford, where he has taken 154 wickets at 23 in first-class cricket.
Anderson’s return will present a tricky scenario to the English selectors – do they go with four specialist quicks at Old Trafford and dump spinner Jack Leach, or do they drop one of Stuart Broad or Chris Woakes to make way for Anderson?
Woakes has an incredible home Test record and England love the depth he provides to their batting. Broad, meanwhile, is terrorising David Warner and they will want to keep that spell cast over the dangerous Aussie opener as long as possible.
Can Australia keep Joe Root mired in his form trough?
Australia and England both have one common problem – a lack of captaincy options. With Smith and Warner banned from leadership positions, Tim Paine is the only realistic option as skipper right now, particularly given Australia don’t like to give that role to bowlers.
For England, Root’s form has crumbled since he took on the captaincy. Their leadership alternatives are limited considering his vice-captain Ben Stokes is trying to rebuild his image after being caught on video not just in an alcohol-fuelled brawl but also mocking a disabled boy in separate footage.
Stokes acts like a leader on the field, no doubt, but England would likely want more distance from those shocking incidents before making him a Test captain.
For the foreseeable future, the weight rests on Root. Clearly this responsibility has disturbed his batting. In his last 26 Test innings he has averaged just 29. That is a long and deep form trough.
Where once Root was lethal when quicks got too straight, picking them off down the ground and through the leg side, now he has become vulnerable to deliveries aimed at his stumps.
Pat Cummins, in particular, is troubling Root with his ability to get the ball to seam back in at his front pad. With their batting line-up a mess, England desperately need their best batsmen to haul himself up out of this hole.