Australia will hope star batsman Steve Smith can inspire an Ashes revival after their stunning one-wicket loss to England in the third Test at Headingley.
Ashes-holders Australia were on the brink of retaining the urn only for Ben Stokes’s astonishing 135 not out to see England -- bowled out for 67 in their first innings -- snatch victory from the jaws of defeat as they levelled the series at 1-1 with two to play.
Smith missed the match with concussion suffered when hit by a 92mph Jofra Archer bouncer in the drawn second Test at Lord’s.
He is expected to play in this week’s tour game against Derbyshire, with a view to returning for the fourth Test at Old Trafford on September 4.
In Smith’s first Test series since he completed a 12-month ban for his role in a ball-tampering scandal that cost him the Australia captaincy, he has scored 144 and 142 in the opener at Edgbaston, and 92 at Lord’s.
Stand-in Marnus Labuschagne has made three successive fifties in Smith’s absence but his 80 in Australia’s second-innings 246 at Leeds was the only score above 33.
“One thing I do know is that we’re not batting well enough at the moment,” said Australia coach Justin Langer.
“I said at the start of the series that the team who bats best will win the Ashes.”
Langer, a former Australia opener, added: “We’ve got some real questions to ask for the practice game and for the fourth Test match.”
There has been speculation Smith’s return could be at the expense of Usman Khawaja, whose top score in six innings is 40.
“Uzzy’s played a lot of cricket and averages over 40 in Test match cricket, he got a Test hundred seven innings ago, so we know he’s a very good player,” said Langer.
Something else Australia will look to improve is their use of the Decision Review System.
For all Stokes’s brilliance, he was reprieved when, with England still needing two to win, off-spinner Nathan Lyon appealed for lbw only for umpire Joel Wilson to ruled in the batsman’s favour.
Replays suggested Stokes would have been out, but Australia had no reviews left after wasting one on a speculative Pat Cummins shout in the previous over.
Langer, who refused to criticise Wilson, said: “We’ve been really poor at it this whole series. We’ve talked a lot about getting better at our reviews. Certainly we have control of that.”
Australia must ensure there are no lingering scars from this shattering loss if they are to win their first Ashes series in England for 18 years.
The match has been compared to the 1981 Ashes Test, also at Headingley, in which England, inspired by legendary all-rounder Ian Botham and fast bowler Bob Willis, won after following-on.
That ‘500/1’ triumph also started a sequence of three succesive wins that saw England come from 1-0 behind to win the Ashes.
Langer, however, insisted: “It’s 1-1 in the series and we’ve been so close -- one more wicket and we’re 2-0 up and feeling pretty good about ourselves but that’s sport and we’ll pick ourselves up.
“We’re all feeling it. My gosh, you’ve got no idea how much that hurts losing, you have no idea.
“But whether you’re the captain, coach or a senior player, you’ve got to get up.”
One senior player “feeling it more than most is Lyon.”
He could have won the match for Australia the ball before his rejected lbw appeal, but fumbled a return that would have seen No 11 Jack Leach run out by a distance.
After Stokes hit the winning boundary, a desolate Lyon slumped to the turf, with concerned Australia captain Tim Paine saying: “He’s a really important player in our side and I said to him that if our players see him dealing with it really quickly and moving on then our younger players are going to do the same thing.”