All the pressure is on Australia.
This is make or break for them, a situation very few beyond the most steadfast England optimists would have anticipated before the series began. Michael Clarke’s team can afford not to win the fourth Test but they must not lose or that will be the Ashes gone for the fourth successive time in England. On the other hand, England can lose the match and still eventually take the series but they would rather not have a shootout at the Kia Oval. Such is the frenetic pace at which these matches have been played that unless the weather intervenes massively, which looks unlikely, the draw can be considered an anachronism.
By next Monday evening, it will either be 3-1 to England and the prospect of a dead rubber at the Kia Oval, or 2-2 and the imperative back on England to make the running in what would then be seen as perhaps the most remarkable switchback series of them all. You can’t take your eyes off for a moment.
These are two sides who have been battling away on different levels. The Australian squad was picked with nothing more in mind than the job in hand, an exercise in pragmatic selection, if also an indictment of the next generation of quality batsmanship in that country. This is not a team that will play together again once the series is over. But if it was expected that it would be more than a match for England – “I don’t expect England to come close, to be honest” was Steve Smith’s pre-tour assessment – it has not gone according to plan. The loss of Ryan Harris was a body blow even though he had been out of the game for a considerable while. He might not have played all the Tests but his presence in Cardiff and Edgbaston and perhaps Nottingham could have proved decisive. Attempts to bolster the batting with first class if not Test experience have also proved futile so far. One batsman, Shane Watson has been dropped, another, Adam Voges is hanging on by his fingernails, and strictly in dispassionate terms, the axing of Brad Haddin, something of a totem in the side, was the right one. Add Clarke’s problems on a variety of levels, and the inconsistency of the bowling, and there is a side in some disarray.
England are far from such chaos but their inconsistency by any cricketing standard, has been almost comical, to the extent that no side in history has had such an erratic sequence of success followed by failure with no middle ground. In part this can be down to the fact the pace at which the games are being played precludes the drawn match. But unlike their Australian counterparts, the England team is one in a developmental stage, both in terms of those playing, and the manner in which they are doing so. In no way will Trevor Bayliss or Paul Farbrace want to quell the enthusiasm or the general attitude but in time, the learning process will get them to the stage where they will know when to stick and when to twist. Whatever the outcome of the series, they are on the way to becoming a very good side, and one that will entertain royally.
Quite how the Australians will react to the latest adversity is hard to predict given the nature of the series so far. In 2009, there was much anticipation of England regaining the Ashes in the fourth Test at Headingley, only for Australia to win by an innings. So in that regard, we have been here before and it pays not to get too far ahead of one’s self. But Australia have been beaten twice now, the second loss coming after they had regrouped in the second Test. How many times can a team get up from the canvas?
After Edgbaston, the talk has been of Australia making yet more changes, with perhaps a reliable seamer, Peter Siddle, replacing one of Josh Hazlewood or Mitchell Starc; and a middle order batsman – Shaun Marsh has been mentioned but also Watson – to replace Voges. There is further talk of Clarke dropping down the order to five, although if ever there would be a sign of running for cover it would be this and it would be out of character for him to take that option. The chances are that Voges, who at least made a Test hundred on debut in the Caribbean and knows Trent Bridge from his time with Nottinghamshire, will retain his spot, and that the only change could be Siddle for Hazlewood, in the belief that Starc can surely get no worse that he was at Edgbaston.
England will replace the injured Jimmy Anderson with Mark Wood, and if Australia want to dress up Anderson’s injury as their “Glenn McGrath moment”, a reference to that great bowler’s injury before the second Test in 2005, then they would be well advised to think again.
Trent Bridge has been Anderson’s happiest hunting ground and he bowled England to victory against Australia last time there. But Wood has taken 15 wickets in three first-class matches there, Stuart Broad has matched Anderson wicket for wicket in the past three years and Steven Finn was scintillating at Edgbaston. It is Alastair Cook’s opening partner who remains the weak link. But Adam Lyth scored an excellent hundred against a New Zealand attack functioning better than has this Australian one overall, and clearlybrings something to the energy within the side.
As for Cook, it would be good if they could sit him down and tell him that in terms of tempo, he will best lead from the front by scoring a bag of runs in his own time no matter what any one else is trying to do. Sometimes there is just a feeling that he is the dad trying to disco dance.
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