With England having not only retained the Ashes but wrapped up the series, it seems a prime time for reflection. International teams tend to compartmentalise their aims into individual series, not getting too far ahead of themselves in order to maintain minimal complacency. However, for coaches and captains, the bigger picture is always in play. And with little more to add to this series, the intentions of writers will gravitate in the same direction. However, the action in the middle with be as intense as ever, with neither side looking to give an inch. No quarter is given between old rivals.
Of all the success that the English have achieved in this series, one thing remains apparent. They are not a side of the same force as the 2010/2011 incarnation. Then they were a team at the top of the world, inspiring fear at the prospect of facing them. They decimated teams, including Pakistan, India and Australia and established themselves as the best English side since the 1950s. Then came early 2012, and a reality check in Pakistan followed by the loss of the test mace at home to South Africa. During this period, something changed. There was a careless arrogance about the side that when challenged, collapsed and was replaced with the comfort of unshakable pragmatism in the form of Alastair Cook. Say what you might about his captaincy, and there is plenty to be said (here’s looking at you, Shane Warne), the results he has produced since taking over speak volumes. He inherited a side in full KP debacle mode, the dressing room in tatters and without the coveted mace. He took the side to India and won for the first time since the 1980s, held off a tenacious New Zealand and regained the Ashes in the minimum tests required, sometimes on the verge of defeat. Even a whitewash of Australia in their own backyard later in the year will not see England regain the top position in test cricket. But don’t, for one moment, think that Cook will not chase it until the day of his retirement.
For the final test, England have added left-arm spinner Simon Kerrigan and bustling all-rounder Chris Woakes to the squad. This comes on the announcement that Tim Bresnan has been ruled out for the remainder of the season with a stress fracture in his lower back. It is likely that Chris Tremlett, being part of the squad for the two previous tests, will replace Bresnan. Kevin Pietersen underwent a scan of his troublesome right knee but with no extra batsman added to the squad, should resume his role in the middle-order alongside the in-form Ian Bell.
It must be tough to stay motivated in the Australian camp. The scoreline in the series may have been expected prior to their showing but it is the manner in which they have lost that will be particularly troubling. Ultimately, they have lost tests that they know they should have won, both in Durham and at Trent Bridge. In Manchester, the rain will be a haunting image imprinted in their minds of a series that was so close, yet so far. With defeat, as with glory, comes the weight of expectation. The unfortunate tale of Philip Hughes explains this succinctly. He remains third on the list of run-scorers on this tour, including warm-up matches, despite missing out on two of the tests. He scored 81 not out, but followed that up with a duck and two singles. The situation in the Australian team calls for this ruthless type of selection. When losing is the culture, the selectors are looking for a quick fix. However, the fact that an Australian number three has not scored a century in 48 innings, spanning across several different players, demands rectifying. A decision must be made and it has become clear that Usman Khawaja is not the answer. Looking the part of a test batsman is not the same as being one, just ask Graeme Smith. What Australia need now are fighters. Warner, Rogers and Smith have endeared themselves in this series simply by taking the game to their opponents. If the Aussies can inspire someone to do the same at three, they will go a long way to solving their ongoing problems.
One of the more lively wickets in England for sheer pace and bounce, the Oval will be exciting destination for Australia’s pace barrage. The fitness of Ryan Harris will be a concern, as he could do some real damage here. England lost their last test at the ground by an innings to South Africa and lost to Pakistan in 2010, but have otherwise been strong at the ground. There are definitely runs to be had here, as batsmen generally do prosper with application. Little to no rain is predicted.
BEST: Top England 1st Innings Batsman, Ian Bell 4/1
The classy middle-order batsman has been in sumptuous form of late and will not miss out at the scene of his double hundred against India in 2011. England’s top order have struggled somewhat and Bell has been elegant in counterpunch. Back him for more runs and his makes his claim at English batting history.
VERDICT: England 1/1
Australia haven’t won at ground for 12 years, since the Waugh brothers helped the Aussies past 600 and Shane Warne took nine wickets to sink the English. Obviously, the Australian side today significantly lacks the same kind of quality. I expect Anderson, Tremlett and Swann to do more damage than Broad here and Australia’s batting to let them down once again.