In a surprising move, England’s selectors have opted to name an unchanged squad for the final Ashes Test against Australia despite the side’s loss at Manchester which has seen the visitors retain the urn.
While the hosts find themselves trailing 2-1 in the five-match series, it could have been a lot worse for them if not for an all-time great knock from Ben Stokes helping them pull off an incredible heist at Headingley.
Several factors have hampered England in the Ashes, not least their woes with the bat. Only four batsmen from either side have averaged more than 40 in the series with the ball comprehensively winning the battle with the bat.
Four England batsmen have averaged less than 26 across the four clashes which makes their inclusion for the Oval Test all the more baffling. With a hard Test reboot looking likely for the hosts after the Ashes, these four batsmen could be playing for their red-ball futures at London.
Here, we look at who they are.
While the Kent batsman has managed to register two half-centuries in the series, he still looks out of place at the international level. Denly has managed to get off to a start in nearly every innings but his inability to make his stay at the crease last longer is not what one wants from a top-order batsman.
The right-hander has batted at both No3 and opener in the series without impressive in either role. His first-class average of 36.42 isn’t exactly inspiring while he is not getting any younger at 33.
While he can serve the Test side as a makeshift opener for the near future, surely England have better at the County level?
The England opener was flaying bowling attacks to all parts of the ground just a few weeks ago in the World Cup but he has struggled to connect with anything else ever since.
Roy’s technique and temperament for Test cricket was always going to be examined rigorously by the Australians and the results have been damning to see for the 29-year-old and England.
That the 53 runs he scored across two innings in the fourth Test is seen as a respectable return from his tells you all about the sorry series he has had previously. He has been moved down the order to No4 after being found against the new-ball but England’s vulnerable top-order means he will still be arriving early at the crease more often than not.
His Test career is probably already over and he might as well go out with a blaze at the Oval.
The England wicketkeeper batsman continues to flatter to deceive with another poor series showing. With a batting average of just 25.42 in the series, Bairstow has been one of the bigger disappointments for the hosts.
His Test graph has been on a sharp downward curve since the turn of 2017 while he is averaging only 20 in the current year. The team management has continued to back the Yorkshire man despite his meagre returns but both time and patience could be about to run out finally.
With Ben Foakes waiting in the wings, there isn’t much breathing room left for Bairstow, especially when another wicketkeeping option in the form of Jos Buttler also exists.
Buttler himself hasn’t covered himself in glory in the series with the right-hander mustering just 130 runs in eight innings at an average less than 17.
While he did manage to show some grit with the bat in the second innings at Old Trafford, Buttler’s place as a specialist batsman is starting to come under question with his returns dipping substantially after a fruitful 2018.
The failure of England’s top-order to fire has only increased the pressure on Buttler’s shoulders and he cannot always be relied upon to bail out the batting like he did against India last year.
The right-hander remains a white-ball beast first and foremost although he is one of selector Ed Smith’s better picks so far for the Test side. However, England’s current predicaments are making him stick out like a sore thumb.
Australia head coach Justin Langer believes that Steve Smith’s purple patch in the 2019 Ashes has afforded some breathing space to other misfiring batsmen in the side like David Warner and Marcus Harris.
Smith’s 671 runs in just five innings have been at the forefront of Australia’s Ashes campaign in England which saw the visitors retain the urn after a 185-run win in the fourth Test at Manchester.
However, apart from Smith and Marnus Labuschagne, the rest of the Australia batting order has had its share of struggles in the series. Warner has been the biggest culprit in that aspect with the left-handed opener averaging less than 10 after being dismissed six times in the series by Stuart Broad.
“He (Smith) has done a lot for Australian cricket for the last few years actually, and so has Dave Warner,” Langer was quoted as saying by cricket.com.au.
“But we’ve also got to remember, Travis Head is new to Test cricket, Marnus (Labuschagne) is new to Test cricket, Marcus Harris is new to Test cricket, Cameron Bancroft is new to Test cricket.
“You can’t just give them that experience, they’ve got to earn that and we’re very thankful to have Steve batting like he is. We’re lucky to have him but Test cricket takes time. We’ve got to respect that, it takes a lot of time.
“Davey (Warner) hasn’t had a great series but imagine how good the team will be when he starts having a great series and we’re hopeful he’ll do that in the next Test match.”
While Langer is of the belief that the team’s relatively inexperienced batsmen need more time to establish their place in the Test squad, he has warned them that they must come good sooner rather than later.
“As Australian Test cricketers, you’ve still got to perform but … whether it makes a difference that we won the Ashes or not, time will tell,” the Australia head coach stated.
“You’ve still got to perform whether you’re young or a veteran but we also have to recognise they are young batsmen and it’s a really tough school and hopefully they’ll come through at some point,” he added.
Having taken a decisive 2-1 lead in the five-match series, the visitors will now be hoping to secure their first Ashes win on English soil since 2001 when the final Test against England at the Oval gets underway on Thursday.
Australia’s 18-year wait to retain the Ashes urn on English soil came to an end on Sunday when the visitors wrapped up a 185-run win in the fourth Test at Manchester to take a 2-1 lead in the five-match series.
One man above them all has led Australia’s charge in England, with Steve Smith dominating the headlines on his Test return after a near 16-month absence. England skipper Joe Root has gone as far as to term the Australia batsman as the real difference between the two sides in the series.
“Both batting sides have very experienced players who have not performed how they would have liked, and that tells a story by itself,” the England captain said after the Old Trafford defeat.
“Take Steve Smith out and it would be very similar from both teams.”
While Smith’s contributions have been gigantic, there are others in the Australia squad who have played their part in the team’s triumph in England.
Here, we look at the four key men including Smith who have been largely responsible for Australia retaining the urn.
The 28-year-old was not risked by Australia in the recent World Cup in England with the Ashes in mind as he fully recovered from a back injury, and that move has paid off handsomely with Hazlewood causing utter mayhem with the ball.
The seamer was not picked in the playing XI for the series opener at Edgbaston with James Pattinson preferred instead, but the impact he has created since coming into the side has been nothing short of stellar.
In just three Tests, Hazlewood has claimed 18 wickets at an average of less than 17 and he is only behind Pat Cummins (22) and Stuart Broad (19) in the wicket-taking charts.
The right-armed bowler was near unplayable at Headingley where he claimed a match-haul of nine wickets and was unfortunate to still end up on the losing side. He was in top form at Manchester as well with his six wickets pivotal to Australia’s win.
England might be regretting that Jofra Archer bouncer to Smith at Lord’s with his concussion replacement Marnus Labuschagne turning out to be an equally formidable opponent.
The 25-year-old emerged unscathed from his tough Ashes baptism with a match-saving half-century in the second innings at Lord’s and has since followed it up with three more fifties on the bounce.
He has comfortably been the second-most assured batsman in the Australia side, arguably even the series, with his compact and textbook technique. In an Ashes series where both batting units have under-performed severely, Labuschagne’s 291 runs at an average over 58 have been worth their weight in gold.
His part-time leg-spin helped the visitors clinch victory at Manchester just when it looked like England would escape with a draw to further cement his Ashes 2019 legacy, which will not be forgotten any time soon by Australian fans.
The Australia pacer is enjoying the best-ever series of his career and that is saying something considering the success he has had since making his comeback in 2017.
In a performance fully deserving of the No1 ICC Test ranking he currently holds, Cummins has established himself as the undisputed leader of Australia’s pace attack with 22 wickets at a staggering average of only 17.41.
His delivery to knock Joe Root’s off-stump out of the ground at Old Trafford will go down as the defining delivery of the series, just like a certain Ryan Harris beauty to dismiss then England skipper Alastair Cook at Perth in 2014.
Playing four Tests on the bounce with the workload of Cummins is no mean feat either with the pacer bowling a total of 164 overs so far in the series. Only off-spinner Nathan Lyon has bowled more overs than Cummins in this Ashes, with the pacer being Tim Paine’s go-to man for every difficult situation.
It has, without a shadow of a doubt, been Steve Smith’s Ashes with the former skipper rewriting the record books on his Test return for Australia. He has been greeted with boos all summer long by England’s fans but that has only spurred him on to rack up a staggering 671 runs in just five innings.
His knock of 82 in the second innings at Manchester is the lowest he has achieved in the series so far and he has been putting up numbers not seen since the days of the great Sir Don Bradman. The fact that most batsmen from either side have struggled massively in the series makes Smith’s prolific form all the more remarkable and he has deservedly reclaimed his No1 ranking from Virat Kohli on the back of his displays.
For Smith to become the leading run-scorer in Tests in 2019, after just three appearances and a seven-month head-start for other batsmen, is as ridiculous as it gets. England will shudder to think the kind of run-tally Smith would have put up had he not missed the Headingley Test due to a concussion.
It is not a stretch to think that Smith would have been on course to break Don Bradman’s record of 974 runs in the 1930 Ashes had he not been forced to miss three innings in the ongoing series due to the Archer bouncer.