Australia wrapped up the Fourth Test late on Sunday afternoon to go 2-1 up in the Series, which of course in the process means that they’ve retained the Ashes. By default, it also means that Tim Paine’s side now can’t lose them, with the best England can hope for being a win in the Fifth Test and a drawn Series.
But what exactly happened at Old Trafford, was it unexpected and why did Australia come out on top?
Toss Crucial as Ever
Going into the Series both teams looked very evenly-matched. Both had a strong pace bowling attack, a world-class middle-order rock- Joe Root for England, Steve Smith for Australia- who could just bat and bat. And if England had the game-changing all-rounder in Ben Stokes, then Australia had the better spinner in Nathan Lyon, someone capable of making all the difference on wearing fifth-day pitches.
All of this ‘evenness’ became less even when England’s star bowler James Anderson hobbled off after just an hour or so on the first day at Edgbaston, never to return. But even aside from that, the shrewd cricket analyst was rightly predicting that whichever captain won more tosses this Series, would probably win the Ashes.
To an extent that’s proven to be true. Australia are 2-1 up having won three tosses to England’s one. Tellingly, that mind-boggling win at Headingley was the one time England did win the toss, though in truth it wasn’t until the last few minutes of the match that they looked like doing so.
For all of England’s momentum and confidence contrasted by Australia’s disappointment going into the Old Trafford Test, the moment the coin fell the Aussies’ way, all that changed.
In most cases in Test matches in England you: bat first, score as many as you can, try to secure yourself any sort of lead after both teams have batted once, try to set the opposition 300+ to chase when you’ve batted the second time round and rely on uneven bounce and spin that comes from a worn wicket to bowl out the opposition. That’s been the recipe for success on English wickets in Tests for as long as we can remember.
The door was opened when Stuart Broad dismissed David Warner cheaply early on for the umpteenth time this Series – he was to do so again in the second innings- but Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne’s partnership changed all that and then England were playing catch-up.
This time round a win was never on the cards but escaping with a draw, a real possibility at tea on Sunday, would have felt like a win.
Good Australian bowling meant that it wasn’t to be but most of the damage had already been done at the toss.
Smith 1.0 and Smith 2.0 too Good for England
It’s funny how these things happen. Marnus Labuschagne will forever be the answer to the cricket quiz question: who was the first-ever concussion substitute?
The only reason he was given a chance at all this Series, was due to the fact that Steve Smith was hit in the head by Jofra Archer at Lord’s. Since then, he never looked back, scoring 59 in that match, followed by 74, 80, 67 and 11. It was that 67 that was arguably most crucial of all, as part of a partnership with Smith that took the game away from England on the second day of the Fourth Test.
As for Smith, his 211 was part of a barely-believable Series he’s having where his 671 runs are 317 runs more than anyone else has managed this Series and this despite missing the Third Test with that concussion.
It’s hard enough getting Smith out but to have a ‘Smith clone’ at the crease alongside him in Labuschagne with a similar technique, unflappable temperament and instinct for when to score and when to defend, went a long way to breaking England.
If England allow those two to form another big partnership at The Oval they can pretty much bin any aspirations to draw the Series. Cricket betting at Marathonbet has Australia as favourites going into the match and you can see why.
England Top Order Hasn’t Cut it
If Smith and Labuschagne have piled on the runs from three and four, the same can’t be said of England’s top order. Rory Burns got an excellent 81 in the first innings but 0 in the second, Root an impressive 71 followed by a duck of his own, while Joe Denly went the other way, scoring just four the first time and a battling 53 in difficult conditions the second time round. As for Jason Roy, the Selectors probably have to just accept he’s been a gamble gone wrong and should just let him get on with the business of scoring lots of fast runs in white-ball cricket.
And perhaps more than any other area, herein lay England’s problem at Old Trafford and the Series as a whole. None of England’s top order batsmen were capable of having two good innings in the same Test, build enough partnerships and even when they did get in, they didn’t capitalize. Or at least, they didn’t the way Smith has.
Of course, there isn’t necessarily a secret to converting 50s into ‘Daddy Hundreds’ but if there is, England certainly haven’t found it over the past few weeks. Ben Stokes’ unbelievable 135 not out at Headingley, aside.
Cummins has Been the Best Bowler in the Series
The minute that Anderson injury happened, the power shifted to Australia in terms of having the better pace attack. The nice thing for the Australians is that they all do something a bit different.
Peter Siddle is accurate and tireless, James Pattinson is genuinely fast, Mitchell Starc is a left-armer who brings the ball back into you while Josh Hazlewood is the closest thing Australia have had since Glenn McGrath called it a day; relentless in bowling the ball in that channel outside off stump, forever drawing the batsman into an error.
But the jewel in the crown is Pat Cummins. His 24 wickets this Series are five more than the next best – England’s Stuart Broad who has been excellent himself – but it’s been about a lot more than the sheer number of scalps. Cummins has always taken wickets early on and when it’s most mattered. Smith will probably walk away with the Man of the Series award whatever happens at The Oval but Cummins would be at worst a deserving runner-up and at best, an excellent candidate himself.
What Next for England?
England aren’t making any changes for the Final Test in terms of the squad but that doesn’t mean that one of Chris Woakes or more likely Sam Curran won’t get a game. An exhausted-looking Archer may make way for Curran, though the Surrey man could also come in for Craig Overton.
Defeat at The Oval and a 3-1 loss would be quite different to 2-2 or 2-1, if it ends in a draw. If the Aussies were to win this week, it may also put pressure on Joe Root regarding the captaincy. One thing is for sure an Ashes post-mortem will be needed in the conclusion of the fifth Test.