After England’s debacle in the First Ashes Test, Archer’s presence in the second Test added the much-needed spice to the series. However, it also manoeuvred them to turn a blind eye to a bigger problem – their batting. The so-called ‘momentum gained after the second Test was lost inside 28 overs of their first innings in the third Test. England was bundled out for 67, their fourth under 100 all-out since 2018.
England’s batting weakness was exposed once more and if not for the heroics from Ben Stokes in the fourth innings, The Ashes would have been done and dusted with two Tests to go.
At the start of the fourth Test, the ‘momentum’ once again, is said to be with England. With Australia’s best batsman, Steve Smith back to continue the one-sided battle where no bowler has a clue on how to dismiss him, the ‘momentum’ can very well shift on the first day if the Aussie captain Tim Paine wins the toss and they have a good first day with the bat.
For England, the only change that the selectors have made is to switch Jason Roy’s and Joe Denly’s batting positions. While Roy has been a walking wicket as an opener in six innings, Denly’s ability to resist good balls have led to the switch.
It seems surprising that Roy’s Surrey teammate, Ollie Pope who has averaged 68.5 in Division One since 2017, the highest among all batsmen in County Championship is overlooked yet again. However, if we look perspective of individual brilliance leading to ignoring over the overall situation, this omission is not surprising after all.
With England’s fragile batting line-up and stubbornness to stick with the same squad, making a comeback after another batting collapse might not be feasible in one more time.
The First-Change Seamer
England is hampered by the absence of James Anderson, the pacer with most wickets in the history of Test cricket. However, the presence of Chris Woakes, whose ability to make the new ball talk did provide them with some solace.
However, the emergence of Archer has shifted the dynamics of England’s bowling attack. Woakes, much suited to bowl with the new ball, has been demoted to first change. With a bowling average of 22.8 and average 43.5 balls per wicket of at home and an average of 61.8 and 120 balls per wicket away from home, it is obvious that Woakes is a condition-dependent bowler. Moreover, even while playing at home his average from 20.1 to 32.9 and strike-rate from 41.9 to 58.3 while bowling in overs 1-30 and 31-80.
This difference was on display during the third Test when Australia, put in to bat on the first morning of the third Test, milked Woakes and Stokes scored run-a-ball after an incredible first spell from Archer and Stuart Broad. The frustration on Joe Root’s face was for everyone to see. The situation got under control only when Archer came back to take six wickets and limit Australia to a small total in the first innings.
In the six Tests at home, Curran has better numbers than Woakes in the middle overs (31-80). Since their batting numbers are comparable, England can consider a change in the fourth Test. With three other right arm-pacers in Broad, Archer and Stokes, a left-arm pacer will provide a new dimension to the attack.
In addition, a left-hand batting option, the only batting type that has scored centuries for England this series, might also be useful with the tail. With England facing two Tests neither of which they can afford to lose, a strategic change can work in their favour.
Who did Australia miss at Headingley?
Up until the last hour, the Australia had the third Test and the Ashes in their bag. During the last hour of the Headingley Test, Aussies did something that is unlike them – they choked. While it is hard to overlook Stokes’s brilliance, the Aussies allowed easy singles to Stokes on the fifth ball every over during the last wicket stand, they were sloppy in the field, wasted their review, could not bowl enough balls at Jack Leach’s stumps and failed to do a strategic move that is associated with the Aussie leadership of the past – slowing down the pace of the game.
Since the retirement of Mitchell Johnson, Australia has struggled to get rid of the lower-order batsmen. The extent of the struggle can be understood from the fact that only Afghanistan and Zimbabwe have lower numbers than Australia against the last four wickets during this period.
In the hindsight, the Aussie skipper, Tim Paine would have loved to have Mitchell Starc in the ranks for that final hour at Headingley. Starc is a force to be reckoned with and Australia missed his presence at Headingley especially when they could not bundle the tail out. The left-armer’s ability to deliver pinpoint swinging yorkers makes with lethal in pressure situations.
Peter Lalor, the chief cricket writer for The Australian is with the team in England and suggests that inclusion of Starc seems unlikely. To cricket followers, his continued exclusion seems almost unbelievable.
Talking about their batting, Justin Langer, the Australian head coach said after the loss in the third Test that their batting has been dull in the tournament so far. An ordinary display in the second innings of the third Test, when the conditions were good for batting, resulted in a target that was gettable for England.
With Smith coming back into the team for the fourth Test, the management has decided to drop Usman Khawaja who has averaged a mediocre 34.8 in 22 Tests since 2017. While Khawaja got a half-century while opening in the tour game against Derbyshire, the quality of the opposition can be understood from the way Smith chose to throw his wicket away and have a lengthy net session instead.
In the last two Tests at this ground (only two Tests here since 2015), spin has played a crucial role in the last innings. The spinners have a strike-rate of 27.6 and an average of 18.3 in the fourth innings.
Even in the County Championships, the spinners average 14 at Old Trafford in the fourth innings since 2018.
England- Rory Burns, Joe Denly, Joe Root ©, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow (wk), Jos Buttler, Chris Woakes, Jack Leach, Jofra Archer, Stuart Broad
Australia- David Warner, Marcus Harris, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Travis Head, Matthew Wade, Tim Paine ©, Pat Cummins, Peter Siddle, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood