“What’s gone is gone. One of life’s lesson is always moving on”, said the famous author Roy Bennett. The Ashes is gone for England. But it is going to be tough for them to move on. The aftermath of an Ashes defeat has never been pleasant for England. The unreasonable axing of Kevin Pietersen after the whitewash in early 2014 being the most prominent example.
The score line at the moment says 2-1 for Australia and England still stand a chance to level the series but they have been thoroughly outplayed by the visitors. The worst aspect of the defeat has been the fact that it came at home. This is the first time that England will fail to win a Test series at home since drawing the two-match series against New Zealand 1-1 in 2015 and a home Ashes defeat in 18 years. After all, England’s home invincibility may be a myth. When we consider the results at a series-level, England has a better record but they are one of the lighter sides to beat at home, when we consider at match-level.
Amongst the top 5 Test nations in ICC Test rankings at present - India, New Zealand, South Africa, England and Australia - England has the highest loss percentage at home.
The time period here is approximately similar to the span during which England revived their ODI fortunes from their failed attempt to qualify for the knockouts of the 2015 World Cup to lifting the trophy in the tournament’s 2019 edition. Hence, the question arises, can England be good at both white-ball and red-ball cricket simultaneously?
England’s bubble of being an elite Test side took a fatal blow as Australia exposed them in both facets of the game. “Take Steve Smith out and it would be very similar from both teams”, said a dejected Joe Root after the Manchester drubbing. He was not wrong. Having scored 671 runs at an average of 134.2, Smith’s lowest score in the five innings has been 82, which is five runs higher than Root’s highest score in the series. The stat not only reflects Smith’s impact in the series but also speaks for England’s misery with the bat.
Not to forget, both Smith and Marnus Labuschagne have missed three innings each in the series.
With the ball as well, the English bowlers have failed to match the efforts of their opponents as a team. Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer have stepped up in James Anderson’s absence without much support. The wickets for England have majorly come when both of them have bowled in tandem forcing Root to employ them for long spells. The commentators, during the Old Trafford Test, termed it as ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’. Archer has lost the sting in his deliveries which he showed at Lord’s and Headingley.
On the contrary, the Australians bowlers ensured parity in taking wickets. With 24 wickets in the series so far, Pat Cummins justified his number one position in ICC Test bowling rankings. Like Archer, Josh Hazlewood joined the attack in the Lord’s Test but has been exceptional with his relentless line and length.
England has also lagged behind in terms of picking the right side. When Australia has been smart with their bowling attack, rotating their fast bowlers every game, England is still not sure about either their batting or bowling line-up after four Tests.
After managing a batting average of only 8.85 as an opener, the lowest by any England opener who has opened in five innings or more, Jason Roy was pushed down to the middle-order in the 4th Test at Old Trafford. He showed more application but was eventually bowled through the gate twice in the Test. In the Test arena, the right-hander has looked like a fish out of water strengthening the belief that the England management easily gets carried away by the success in white-ball cricket.
Sam Curran’s absence from the XI for four Tests in a row is also surprising. He was dropped in favor of an extra batsman. Since 2018, Curran has a batting average of 31.8, higher than that of many current top-order batsmen including Rory Burns, Joe Denly and Jonny Bairstow in this series.
Joe Root has also received severe criticism for his captaincy. “He (Root) lacks any feel for captaincy. He just stood at slips watching Smith took the match away from us”, said the former English cricketer, Sir Geoffrey Boycott.
During the second innings of the Old Trafford Test, Root signaled Archer to switch to around the wicket for one ball while standing in the slips. The look on Archer’s face clearly suggested he was unhappy with the decision and the commentators termed it as a faulty way to communicate with the bowler.
“He seriously has to think whether he is suited for the job and whether it is affecting his batting”, concluded Boycott.
Unlike the earlier Test venues, The Oval is more in favor of the batsmen. It has been England’s best batting venue in this decade with an average of 39.6 runs per dismissal of a player batting in the top six (minimum five Tests).
The venue is expected to provide some respite to the openers who have been going through a nightmare. Openers from both sides in the series have averaged only 18.9 runs per wicket, the lowest in a series in England since 2006. The Oval, however, has been a better venue for openers in England since 2015.
Each of the England’s current openers, Rory Burns and Joe Denly, have a fifty plus score to their name but Australia has just one - David Warner’s 61 at Headingley. This is probably the only record in the series that has worked in the favor of the home side. Warner, who is expected to retain his place despite a horror series, will aim to turn the tables against Broad and get amongst runs again after bagging a pair in the fourth Test. The same goes with Marcus Harris who will be batting for his career in the fifth Test.
Ben Stokes’ shoulder injury has forced England to axe Jason Roy. The all-rounder will play the fifth Test as a specialist batsman and Roy will be replaced by his Surrey teammate, Sam Curran. Chris Woakes, who was benched for the Old Trafford Test will also come back into the XI at the expense of Craig Overton.
England: Rory Burns, Joe Denly, Joe Root (c), Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow (wk), Jos Buttler, Jofra Archer, Chris Woakes, Sam Curran, Jack Leach, Stuart Broad
Australia has announced only one change in their 12-man squad for the last Test by replacing Mitchell Marsh with Travis Head. Each of the fast bowlers in the Australian squad have been rested through the series except Pat Cummins. He has bowled 164.1 overs in this series, the most by any fast bowler. With the urn in the bag, the management will think about giving him a well-earned rest. Post this Test, however, Australia won’t be playing any international cricket till the last week of October tempting the fast bowler to deliver one final punch in this series.
Australia: Marcus Harris, David Warner, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Mitchell Marsh, Matthew Wade, Time Paine (c & wk), Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon