Real changes have come too late for this England side. Performances have been criticised for those on the field, especially Jason Roy, who has now paid the price with his omission and will miss out playing at his home ground, but off the field selections have been disappointing too.
James Anderson should never have been deemed fit in Birmingham, Chris Woakes should not have been dropped for Craig Overton, as his reappearance proves, and for last summer’s man-of-the-series Sam Curran to only be making his Ashes debut in what is essentially a dead rubber – in terms of where the urn ends up at least – is a travesty.
But this is all immaterial now. The real changes will come after this Test, when head coach Trevor Bayliss steps aside after four years at the helm. It feels like the right time too: brought in off the back of the most embarrassing World Cup performance in history, Bayliss, assisted by Paul Farbrace among others, has transformed England in the one-day arena and achieved history with a home World Cup victory.
But with relentless schedules nowadays, sport has the nasty tendency to bring you back down to earth with a bump very, very quickly. Ben Stokes’ remarkable innings at Headingley has masked what could have been another winless Ashes series under the leadership duo of Bayliss and Joe Root. England fans have never been comfortable with this partnership, and a defeat at The Oval this week may result in a change in both positions, not just head coach.
To business. Speculation regarding a new head coach (and possibly captain) will have to wait. The eleven players that take to the field wearing the three lions and a crown will all feel they have something to prove, with the possible exception of Stokes. His slight shoulder problem has meant he is not able to bowl, which has ultimately cost Roy his place. The theory to open with Roy in Tests always looked hopeful, especially when by his own admission, he’d ‘not done it before in red-ball cricket.’
His interview with Sky Sports, published before his axing, reveals plenty about his state of mind and the fact he feels he hasn’t been given the right opportunity to prove himself at this level. Roy continues: “Opening, I didn’t know the right mindset to have. At no.4 I could be a bit more open-minded and just play, even though in the second innings the plan was to bat all day. Even then, I was still in in the first over. I’m the first to criticise myself and I know that I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The common cliché that gets banded around is you look a better player when you’re out of the team, because your strengths are being compared to others’ weaknesses that may have been exposed by the opposition. But Roy has shown very little strength in the Test arena, and with the volume of middle-order batsmen at England’s disposal, may find it impossible to force his way back into the red-ball setup, especially with the selectors being guarded against damaging his white-ball form by shooting his confidence entirely.
Stokes will take Roy’s place at No.4 and will play as a specialist batsman – for a man who is universally regarded as England’s second-best batsman in terms of technique (and on current form, may even be the best), this is no issue. Moving Bairstow and Buttler up to five and six however is more of a concern: Bairstow averages less than 21 this calendar year, with a top score of just 52, and Buttler’s average is exactly 22 (it was less than 20 before the Old Trafford Test, where he at least showed some application before receiving two great balls in each innings).
This means the returning Sam Curran and Chris Woakes may be awfully exposed at No.7 and No.8. Both essentially bowling all-rounders at their current respective stages in their careers, both have shown more recent form with the bat than their more senior teammates batting directly above them. Curran scored 272 runs against India last summer in four matches: Bairstow and Buttler have combined for just 36 more runs in these four Ashes Tests.
Buttler only has one century in 62 Test innings for his country: the same amount as Woakes, whose primary job is to take wickets – which he has done brilliantly in home conditions. The specialists England have chosen feel as if their talent on paper, perhaps warped by their ability in other formats, has never been realised in the whites of England, which has forced the selectors to plump for all-rounders with the capability to perform with bat and with ball, and can redeem one facet of their game even if the other is out of shape: but is that the way to form a consistently performing Test team – full of bits and pieces and hodgepodge, patched together as successfully as a Brexit negotiation deal. Perhaps this Test side needs proroguing until after October 31. Mercifully, they will get that chance before a two-Test series in New Zealand starting on November 20.
The Aussies get one more chance to rub salt into the English wounds, something they have become accustomed to in recent decades, but not on English soil. The fact Tim Paine, essentially a stand-in captain while Steve Smith serves the rest of his ban from a leadership role, will lift the urn away from home for the first time since 2001 is just as baffling as the lack of top-order runs from both sides: with the exception of Smith, of course.
He has essentially been the difference between these two sides, and the statistic that puts him top of the runs chart this calendar year globally, despite the fact he didn’t play a Test until August, is truly incredible. But to win Test matches you need to take 20 wickets, and for all of the criticism laid at the feet of the English batsman, Australia have only lost all 20 wickets once so far this series, whereas England have only declared once.
The key to this has been the relentless pressure put on the brittle England batting line-up by the incredible battery of fast bowlers at Justin Langer‘s disposal. As proved by injuries to English quicks Anderson, Mark Wood and Olly Stone among others, to have your five premier fast bowlers all fit and firing for the most important Test series available to an Australian or an Englishman is a remarkable feat in itself, and credit must go to the Australian setup for their rotation policy, something England have been fairly reticent to do in recent years – which resulted in the loss of Anderson for virtually this entire series, save four overs at Edgbaston.
Mitch Marsh will add to the fast bowling options available to Paine at The Oval, which is normally a batting paradise until the pitch breaks up later in the week. Marsh’s inclusion is probably more of a slight against Australia’s batting than their need for Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc to be supported – Travis Head the man to make way, despite having the third best average in the team this series.
David Warner‘s average of under 10 is scarcely believable for such a talented batsman in literally every other country: he is still yet to make a Test century in England, despite his overall average clocking in at 46. He has been dismissed for a single-figure score SEVEN times this series: that is a joint record for an opener in Test history. For such a key player to be in such wretched form, and yet for his side to be leading the series 2-1, shows what a crazy, unfathomable series this has been.
The quality has been nowhere near 2005, but for pure entertainment 2019 has been right up there, something the ECB will be grateful for on the back of a hugely successful World Cup. A drawn series would feel just in some ways, as both sides have undercut their bowling strengths with some fragile batting performances, especially from the opening partnerships: Australia’s highest first-wicket partnership has been 13. And yet, for the performances of the world number one Smith and the world number one bowler Cummins, it would almost be a travesty to have them face a drawn Test series.
Whatever happens this week, it may be a while before analysts are able to unpick just what the 2019 Ashes really all meant.
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