‘I think they’re hostile at the best of times.’
Justin Langer and the rest of the Australian brains trust will no doubt spend a few days reviewing the Ashes tour to date, now that the halfway point has been passed.
There will naturally be a lot of disappointment following the failure to close out the series in the third Test, but what other points are they likely to take from the performances so far?
The top three spots in the batting order remain an issue. Australia has not enjoyed any decent starts this series, which places a lot more pressure on the middle and lower orders to contribute.
Steve Smith has batted brilliantly and Marnus Labuschagne has been a revelation. Travis Head and Matt Wade have had some good moments, as has the tail, but expecting the lower order to score runs against Jofra Archer is an unrealistic proposition.
The bowlers have been very good this series and went within a whisker of keeping the Ashes in Australia’s grasp.
The euphoria over England’s win in the third Test hides a few facts. They needed to win this game, and prior to the match starting, were expected to do so handsomely, given the emergence of Jofra Archer and the absence of Steve Smith.
Their entire side failed to make 100 with the bat for the fourth time in 18 months in the first innings and their openers were both back in the shed for 15 in the second.
Archer remains their main strike bowler and is proving particularly lethal against the tail. They’ve also relied heavily on Ben Stokes’ batting and bowling so far, though there have been signs of improvement with the bat from Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler.
The one area of concern for Langer would have to be Australia’s catching. The first innings of the last Test showed what the team can do when catches are held, but the second showed what happens when chances aren’t taken.
So where to from here for the Australian side?
First of all, the bowlers need to continue doing what they’ve done successfully for the first three Tests: making the English batsmen play, getting into the middle order as quickly as possible and cleaning up the tail without allowing them to get settled.
The batting is still a concern, but this was known to be the case before the series started. The side will be boosted by Steve Smith’s return and with Labuschagne in career-best form, Australia can build decent scores around them.
In order to do that, Langer and Tim Paine need to get the top three right to allow Head and Wade to make runs without the pressure of trying to hold the innings together. Paine also needs to relax at the crease and focus only on his batting and not being concerned about captaincy or any other factor that might distract him from making runs.
Selectors will be looking closely at the tour game before the fourth Test to see if this can provide some guidance, otherwise they may be forced to simply go with their gut and choose who they think might do a job in the top three and hope for the best they’re right.
A lot of time will also be spent on catching, but above all, Langer will be focusing on maintaining concentration in the field so those half chances that Australia has missed this series are taken.
The team also needs to focus on getting England out by taking all chances that come their way and not relying on umpires making favourable decisions. They need to adopt the same approach with batting, staying focused to avoid 50-50 calls that might go against them.
The report card for the series to date indicates Australia is at least on level terms, if not a nose in front of England. The side won at fortress Edgbaston held out for an honourable draw at Lord’s and held the upper hand for much of the third Test without Steve Smith.
The next game is one where the side needs to go all out to win. Jimmy Anderson is likely to be back, but Steve Smith will return. This will give England a very strong attack, but their batting still remains frail and their fielding is indifferent.
If Australia can focus on getting a good start with the bat and blunting England’s attack, the bowlers are capable of taking 20 wickets as long as they receive 100 per cent support from their fielders.
A win in the fourth Test means we keep the Ashes. This needs to be the message to a squad who is right in this series.