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No steam lost as Men's Ashes resumes after cooling-off period

Last updated on 18 Jul 2023 | 04:15 PM
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No steam lost as Men's Ashes resumes after cooling-off period

The Manchester Test can end England's dream as well as keep the viewers on their toes for a knockout contest later on

“I can confirm that Alex Carey has now had a haircut and that he paid for it,” tweeted Steve Smith a few hours ago. 

As hilarious as the tweet is, you will have to appreciate the timing of it (if you have the context). A day before the fourth Test, it is a subtle reminder of a past event in the series that underlines the absurd incidents, the animosity and the scorching nature of this Ashes. 

It has been nine days since England registered their first win in the series in Leeds. The Australian players took a break. Some went to explore other parts of Europe. Smith marked his presence at Wimbledon. Mitchell Starc went to support his wife, Alyssa Healy, in the Women’s Ashes. But Smith’s tweet a day before the upcoming Test clarifies the steam on the series is still intact. 

To start with, the series is still alive. A win for England in Manchester will take it to a decider at the Oval. If it goes down that route, England will garner a psychological advantage of leveling the series after being 0-2 down. 

The legacy of both sides is dependent on this series. Bazball will mean nothing if they are unable to regain the Ashes in home conditions. Pat Cummins’ Australia have been dominant for the most part but ticking off a Test series win in England is a challenge no Australian captain has accomplished since 2001. Both sides have announced their XIs. 

The result in Manchester can end a dream as well as set up one of the most memorable Test series into a knockout fifth round. The best thing is that a draw already seems out of the picture, given the quality of cricket in the series. 

Things to watch out for

Anderson’s last hurrah at home?

Rested from the previous match, James Anderson is back in the XI for the Manchester Test. There is an emotional value to his return. This could be his last Test at his home ground and thus the last occasion of James Anderson running in to bowl from the James Anderson Stand at Old Trafford. 

There have been talks of his retirement for many years, but the discussions now seem more serious than ever. The 40-year-old picked only three wickets in the first two Tests.

“I cannot remember having two such quiet games in a row for at least the past 10 years. But the reason I have not taken wickets is not my age,” said Anderson in his column for the Telegraph in the build-up for the third Test. 

England’s new approach towards batting in Test cricket demands flatter pitches which goes against Anderson’s modus operandi of swinging the ball. 

Having said that, a break could work in the veteran’s favor to extend his Test career by another series or season. Which way it goes will be one of the most fascinating subplots from the England camp. 

Australia’s combination

Australia have announced the squad around 18 hours before the first ball is scheduled to bowl. David Warner keeps his place in the side. Josh Hazlewood returns for Scott Boland. Cameron Green, having missed the last Test due to a niggle, replaces Todd Murphy in the XI. 

In a series of exciting decisions, Australia have changed the outlook of their XI. There is a surplus of fast bowling resources - Cummins, Hazlewood, Starc, Marsh and Green. The batting runs till number eight even if you don’t count Cummins and Starc who have been hit-and-miss in the series. However, there is no specialist spinner and each of the five seamers have shown some degree of susceptibility in the series. Given Manchester is one of the better venues for spin bowling in terms of turn and bounce, Travis Head will have to bowl a lot for the visitors. 

Warner has been decent on the tour without being spectacular. But his twin dismissals against Stuart Broad at Headingley have opened the can of worms again, showcasing his perennial struggle against the England pacer. 

Broad has dismissed Warner 17 times in Test cricket. Two more dismissals, which can happen in Manchester itself, will level him with Glenn McGrath’s record of dismissing a batter most times in Test cricket - Michael Atherton 19 times. 

Moreover, another dismal Test can shut down Warner’s Test career before the fifth Test.

Pitch and Conditions

Old Trafford has generally been a bat-first pitch. An early glimpse at the 22-yard strip on the eve of the match suggests a good track to bat on the opening day, at least. 

Since 2019, Old Trafford has the highest batting average in the first innings of the Test - 38.5. The average then dips alarmingly. The difference is enough to tell you that the team winning the toss will opt to bat first. 

In the aforementioned time frame, the spinners have accounted for 21.3% of the wickets fallen, the second highest among all Test venues in England. 

Therefore, runs in the first innings, spinners in action as the game progresses and some spells of rain in between, as is always the case in England. These are the three things that you can expect from this contest. 

Tactical Nous

> The Moeen Ali experiment at number three seemed bizarre in the second innings of the Headingley Test, but it will continue at Old Trafford. Expect Australia to bombard him with short balls. Moeen averages 30.6 in his Test career against pacers. When tackled with the short-pitched stuff, Moeen’s average drops to 20.3 on account of seven dismissals. Given the nature of this series thus far, bowling a barrage of short balls shouldn’t be a task for the Australian pacers. 

> On the contrary, the short balls are not the answer for Marsh. The low strike-rate on the good length area as compared to the other lengths at Headingley indicates the right areas to bowl to Marsh.

The shorter side of the good length got him out both times in the third Test. 

Playing XIs 

England (announced): Zak Crawley, Ben Duckett, Moeen Ali, Joe Root, Harry Brook, Ben Stokes ( c ), Jonny Bairstow (wk), Chris Woakes, Stuart Broad, James Anderson, Mark Wood 

Australia (announced): David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Travis Head, Mitchell Marsh, Cameron Green, Alex Carey (wk), Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins ( c ), Josh Hazlewood

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