Australia might have retained the urn, but there is still plenty to be done by the tourists as they attempt to win The Ashes outright against a defeated England at The Oval.
The Australians have been well above expectations at times in what has been a hotly-contested series from the first ball all the way back in Edgbaston.
Of course, it was that match that set the wheels turning, and with the exception of one famous Ben Stokes innings at Headingley, Australia have been the better of the two sides, as they proved beyond all reasonable doubt at Old Trafford.
While a lot of that last statement is only made true by the ridiculous form of Steve Smith, who continues to plunder runs like it’s the easiest thing in the world, Australia’s bowlers have also been on the money when they needed to be, while Smith has received batting support in crucial stretches of the series.
Smith’s third Ashes double century at Old Trafford, bouncing back from a Test on the shelf with a concussion, was one of the greatest Test batting performances you’re ever likely to see and set up what will go down as a famous victory for the tourists.
Even with the innings interrupted multiple times by rain, and the Test then coming down to the wire, the Australian bowling attack managed to run through England with 14 overs to spare, the crucial wickets of Joe Root and Rory Burns, both to ducks late on Day 4 being pivotal in getting the job done.
Those wickets, as well as so many others throughout the series, fell to Pat Cummins, who has been tremendous for the Australians.
While individual performances have been the order of the day in a series where it’s hard to say just what has gone wrong for England, the home side simply haven’t had enough players stand up to be counted under pressure.
One of the biggest problems has been the inconsistent form of their skipper Joe Root, and if they are to at least salvage a drawn series, some vital World Test Championship points and momentum moving out of their home summer, then he is going to be key to that happening.
Outside of Root’s form, England will also want to see more from their floundering middle order. With the exception of Stokes, the likes of Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler have been inconsistent at best, while the form or Jason Roy is downright deplorable, although improved slightly by his demotion to number four.
The two other major improvements, or continued form progressions, England would like to see at The Oval are that of Joe Denly stamping his spot at the top of the order, and for Jofra Archer to get back to his best.
While The Ashes is gone, as mentioned, World Test Championship points and the overall series result still hang in the balance, so there is plenty riding on the game to keep it interesting.
Australia will also need to recover from their celebrations and huge bowling effort, where they sent down around 200 overs in three days at the back end of the match to get rid of England twice, with the two innings separated by just a three-hour break.
Of all the grounds in England outside of Edgbaston, The Oval has been Australia’s least favourite over the years, winning just seven of 37 Tests at the venue, although there has also been 14 draws.
The good news after such a heavily rain-impacted series is that, at this point, the forecast for London across the next five days is mainly for fine weather, meaning we shouldn’t have a chance to add to that tally of draws.
Overall record: Played 350, Australia 146, England 109, drawn 95
Overall record in England: Played 170, Australia 52, England 50, drawn 68
Overall record at The Oval: Played 37, England 16, Australia 7, drawn 14
Overall series record: Played 78, Australia 40, England 33, drawn 8
Overall series record in England: Played 38, England 19, Australia 15, drawn 4
Last five series
2017-18: Australia won 4-0 in Australia
2015: England won 3-2 in England
2013-14: Australia won 5-0 in Australia
2013: England won 3-0 in England
2010-11: England won 3-1 in Australia
Last five matches at The Oval
2015, Aug 20-23: Australia won by an innings and 46 runs
2013, Aug 21-25: Match drawn
2009, Aug 20-23: England won by 197 runs
2005, Sep 8-12: Match drawn
2001, Aug 23-27: Australia won by an innings and 25 runs
Isn’t it fun when both teams announce their teams at 10pm, a matter of hours after this preview was written?
Anyway, England have gone for the unsurprising option of dumping the struggling Jason Roy. They had originally named the same 13-man squad as the one who had lost in Manchester, but with Ben Stokes ruled unfit to bowl, the changes were swung on Wednesday.
While Joe Denly gets another crack at the top of the order, England will go in with just six recognised batsmen, effectively replacing Roy with Sam Curran, while Chris Woakes takes the spot of Craig Overton, after they were swapped for the previous Test.
There was a line of thought that said Jofra Archer may have also been dropped after a poor showing during the fourth Test, but that line of thinking has proven to be way off the mark.
Regardless, given England’s struggle for runs, dropping down to six batsmen seems a wild solution.
1. Joe Denly
2. Rory Burns
3. Joe Root (c)
4. Jos Buttler
5. Ben Stokes
6. Jonny Bairstow (wk)
7. Sam Curran
8. Chris Woakes
9. Jack Leach
10. Jofra Archer
11. Stuart Broad
Rest of squad: Jason Roy, Craig Overton
It was looking likely that the only changes the Australians would be tempted to make were in the bowling attack, however, as if almost wanting to pick up on the performance of Stokes, Mitchell Marsh has been included, replacing the out of sorts Travis Head.
It’s the only change in the top seven though and is sure to be met with retaliation from fans, as Marsh is given yet another chance at the highest level of the game.
This means that David Warner and Marcus Harris both survive at the top of the order, as does Matthew Wade in the middle order, although he may come up to number five for this Test.
While the tourists will be desperate to finish with a 3-1 outright series victory instead of a drawn result, they will also be mindful that a long summer of cricket is only a month away from starting.
Pat Cummins, who no longer seems to be injury-prone, is likely to be rested for the fifth Test given a monumental workload across the Ashes and a short turnaround from Manchester.
He is the only Aussie quick to play every game, and already has 164 overs under the belt, as well as all ten World Cup matches before it.
At full strength, the Aussies would like him and Josh Hazlewood to play, however, it’s expected at least one will be rested, with Mitchell Starc to keep his spot and Peter Siddle to rejoin the XI, while James Pattinson hasn’t been given a look back into the side.
1. David Warner
2. Marcus Harris
3. Steve Smith
4. Marnus Labuschagne
5. Mitchell Marsh
6. Matthew Wade
7. Tim Paine (c, wk)
8. Peter Siddle
9. Mitchell Starc
10. Josh Hazlewood
11. Nathan Lyon
Rest of squad: Cameron Bancroft, Pat Cummins, Travis Head Usman Khawaja, Michael Neser, James Pattinson
Can England get Steve Smith out?
Really, I could just write this point and leave it at that, because this one question will decide the entire match if the answer comes back as a no.
That’s how good Smith is. This will be forever remembered as Smith’s Ashes, and it’s the first time we have seen such dominance by an individual player since Freddy’s Ashes in 2005.
The claims have begun that Smith is the best since Bradman, and it’s hard to deny looking at all the numbers, including those of this year, where he missed half the year and now, in just five innings, has more runs than any other player from around the world for the calendar year.
That is simply phenomenal when you think about it, and Smith is in a position now to punish a tired English attack, who have tried absolutely everything, but don’t seem to have any answers.
For perspective, Smith, despite missing three innings, is already inside the top 15 for most runs ever scored by an individual player in a series, with 671 runs at 134.2, which included getting himself out chasing runs in Manchester.
The form line is simply sensational, and even patience will only get England so far against him, with Smith happy to bat all day.
The only tactic that has worked so far is a fired-up Jofra Archer, and it would appear England are going to need him back at his best if they are to get rid of the former Aussie skipper.
Where are England’s runs coming from?
This has been a problem which has followed England around like a bad smell all series. While Smith is the obvious difference between the two sides, England have had no one be consistent, and no regular contributions all the way down the order like they should have to stay in the series.
The buck starts with their skipper Joe Root, who has struggled in a big way to get the scoreboard ticking over. He has had a couple of good innings, sure, but he has also had a trio of ducks and some other low scores which have hurt England badly.
Rory Burns technique is one where he is susceptible to movement and the short ball, and in these conditions, needs a lot of luck to score runs, while Jason Roy, Joe Denly, Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler have been flat out ordinary at times, with the odd contribution keeping England floating.
And Ben Stokes – yeah he had two centuries, but he then went to Manchester and was among the worst performers in the English top seven, which is saying something when you consider just how flat out ordinary they have been.
To put it in as simple terms as possible, if England don’t find a way to match Australia’s run-scoring output, even against good bowling, they won’t win this Test, or any Test against strong nations home or away.
You need to take 20 wickets to win a Test, but you don’t have the opportunity to do that without runs being on the board and the opposition being under the pump.
Can David Warner find a way against Stuart Broad?
Only once in this series has David Warner found a way to score runs against Stuart Broad and the opening bowlers of England, and even on that occasion, he was more or less a mess for the first hour of his innings, playing and missing at everything and looking generally very unconfident at the crease.
He has scored just 79 runs in eight innings, and taking out his top score of 61, just 18 runs across the other seven, with a number of ducks and dismissals inside the opening overs being the trademark of the former world-beating opener.
While it should be noted Warner struggled last time he came to England, this has been a whole new level of struggle, and while there is no chance he is going to be dropped either for this Test or the upcoming Australian summer where he scores runs like they are going out of fashion, he does need to find a way against Broad and those coming around the wicket at him.
The diminutive left-hander has often struggled throughout his career when not offered any width against a moving ball, and while he has improved that area of his game, it’s been shown as a major weakness in this series, just as Andrew Flintoff exposed Adam Gilchrist bowling around the wicket time and time again in 2005.
It then became a trend around the world and drove Gilchrist to the brink of retirement before he could sort his game out.
Warner needs to do that here and prove the tactic won’t work against him for the long haul, otherwise, it’s going to be the Tim Southee and Trent Boult show this summer when New Zealand tour.
Dates: Wednesday, September 4 – Sunday, September 8
First ball: 8pm (AEST)
Expected daily finish time: 3am (AEST)
Venue: Old Trafford, Manchester
TV: Live, 9Gem
Online: Live, 9Now
Umpires: Kumar Dharmasena, Marais Erasmus
|First session||8pm – 10pm||7:30pm – 9:30pm||6pm – 8pm||11am – 1pm|
|Lunch||10pm – 10:40pm||9:30pm – 10:10pm||8pm – 8:40pm||1pm – 1:40pm|
|Second session||10:40pm – 12:40am||10:10pm – 12:10am||8:40pm – 10:40pm||1:40pm – 3:40pm|
|Tea||12:40am – 1am||12:10am – 12:30am||10:40pm – 11pm||3:40pm – 4pm|
|Third session||1am – 3am||12:30am – 2:30am||11pm – 1am||4pm – 6pm|
The big question here is whether Australia can get themselves back up for the match. Just how much do they want a 3-1 series victory, as compared to simply settling for the urn and a ticket back home as fast as possible are a punishing four months on the road?
In saying that, England will also be crushed to have lost the urn on home soil and don’t seem to have the form to beat the Aussies at the moment, who they don’t match-up with across the park.
Neither batting line-up has been going great outside of Smith either, and with no rain forecast, there will definitely be a result.
That all being said, I’m taking Australia.
Australia to win another close Test in four days.
Stay across all the action from The Oval as The Roar cover the match with our live scores, blog and highlights of each day’s play.