England vs Australia | Thursday 20 August - Monday 24 August | The Oval | 12:00
Having reclaimed the Ashes in triumphant fashion, England are now presented with the opportunity to chase four wins in an Ashes series for the first time since 1978. In a miraculous turnaround from the last series in Australia, Alastair Cook became the third English captain to win twice on home soil against the biggest rivals. The historic series concludes at the Oval, another ground that will test Australia’s batting resources. The tourists have plenty to play for in hoping to grant Michael Clarke a successful send off, but have done themselves no favours in their preparation.
To Win Match
The hosts began the series with a win in Cardiff on a pitch that was criticised for its lack of pace. England lost at Lord’s on another slow pitch also thought to be tailored to negate the threat of Mitchell Johnson. Lively pitches at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge saw England completely blow Australia away in typical Ashes conditions. Surely the preference for traditional English wickets would be obvious, given the fact that the English team would’ve grown up and learned their cricket in such a climate? Indeed, the complete lack of awareness in the Australian batting lineup when facing a challenge of swing and seam has provoked Ricky Ponting to suggest using the Dukes ball in Shield Cricket.
There are a few clear cut reasons for England winning the Ashes this year. Cricket can be quite simple at times. Firstly, England caught better than Australia. Secondly, they pitched the ball fuller to encourage the drive and used the home conditions to their advantage. Thirdly, their side had balance. All-rounders such as Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali had significant parts to play, while Joe Root rose to the number one batsman in Test cricket while also collecting a few significant wickets. Even Stuart Broad scored some runs in the lower-order. England simply performed better as an entire outfit.
Broad’s 8/15 at Trent Bridge in the first innings completely shattered Australia and from there, resistance was almost futile. Skittling the tourists out for 60, England needed only prevent a similar collapse of their own across two innings to win the match. Taking nothing away from a truly remarkable bowling performance, Australia looked all at sea against an attack missing its all-time wicket-taker and threw wickets away on more than one occasion. England will hope for much of the same on a nippy Oval track. James Anderson will be back in the squad for the final Test but will not be risked unless he is at full fitness. Adam Lyth looks set to continue at the top of the order following some modest scores, but the real selection conundrum comes in the form of Adil Rashid. The spinner has been left out for the entire series and England will be intent on testing him before a trip to the subcontinent.
The Australian side are in disarray. In a reversal from the last Ashes series, it is now the men from Down Under who face a transitional period upon the conclusion of this Test match. It will be captain Michael Clarke’s final Test as the former strokemaker announced his retirement after the series loss. Clarke has been in woeful form since coming back from a slew of injuries and the Ashes simply confirmed what most expected; the captain’s touch has left him. While the team will be intent of securing a win to pay best tribute to Clarke, perhaps they should have employed a similar at-all-costs attitude to winning the series. Coach Darren Lehmann has admitted to selection errors but I tend to agree with Geoff Marsh. Who else could Australia have picked to produce the goods in England? It will be far easier to find reasons to support the exclusion of those on the fringes, rather than justifications for inclusion.
Indeed, a former coach has taken the time to lambaste Michael Clarke for what he sees as erosion of the ‘baggy green culture’. He cites a young, precocious Clarke as someone who refused instruction on the baggy green code of conduct, or at least seemed unwilling to understand it. Well, people change. And so do sports teams. How often was the erosion of the baggy green culture spoken of in the 1980s? For me, this intangible force referred to is simply an extension of the winning culture espoused by Australia in the 1990s. Having the best team in world cricket at the time certainly helped enforce such a notion. The idea that Michael Clarke somehow destroyed it with his captaincy and personality is rather absurd given the scant resources currently at Australia’s disposal.
Yet, cricket moves on and so will Australia. Steve Smith has been named to lead the side at the conclusion of the Ashes and David Warner will be his deputy. It’s a double adjustment for Warner, who will also find himself with a new opening partner after the Oval. That’s Chris Rogers, Ryan Harris and Clarke as casualties of this series, with Brad Haddin added to the list. Australia’s brittle middle-order has been at the forefront of their problems and being dismissed for 60 was simply an extreme figure that explained an issue that had been bubbling under the surface for quite some time. Unfortunately, there is not much that Australia can do to fix it for the Oval and their final tour match left no indication that any improvements had been made. If not for the first day being rained out, Australia could easily have slumped to ludicrous loss against Northamptonshire.
The Oval always offer a bit of extra pace and bounce and that should play to England’s favour given the way that the series has transpired so far. England’s recent record at the ground is fairly good and these two sides drew back in 2013. Rain is forecast for Thursday but the majority of the weekend looks dry and a result looks likely.
VERDICT: England 5/4
The Australians just don’t seem to have the stomach for the contest at the moment. I would imagine that every single one of them are more focussed on what happens once this tour is over than on this Test match. England look great value to pick up the win at 5/4. Get on.