A near four-month stay in England is about to draw to an end for many Australia players as the two arch-rivals prepare to lock horns in the fifth and final Ashes Test at the Oval beginning on Thursday.
The visitors have already managed to retain the urn after their 185-run win at Old Trafford in the fourth Test but they are still eyeing an outright series win for the first time on English soil since 2001.
England, on the other hand, are looking to level the series and restore some pride after their Manchester defeat. There is also the added matter of 24 vital ICC World Test Championship points on offer for both sides.
As the two old foes prepare for one final battle at London, we look at three key duels which could prove to be decisive.
Joe Root v Josh Hazlewood
The England skipper has been one of the better batsmen for his side in the series with three half-centuries but an equal number of ducks besides his name has meant that consistency has eluded him.
Root’s has paled in comparison to his ‘Fab Four’ rival Steve Smith who has racked up 671 runs in five innings and the Englishman will be under pressure to deliver at the Oval with question marks surrounding his captaincy.
Root, however, will not have it easy against Josh Hazlewood who has been a real difference maker for Australia since coming into the playing XI for the second Test. The seamer has claimed 18 wickets in just three Tests this series with a remarkable average of 16.88, and his immaculate lines and lengths have been a terror to deal with for the English batsmen.
Hazlewood has had Root’s number three times already in the series and will be looking to continue that domination at the Oval.
Stuart Broad v David Warner
This one looks like a no-contest after a completely one-sided domination by Stuart Broad. The England pacer has been all over Warner like a rash this summer and has dismissed him a staggering six times in eight innings.
Warner, in return, has been able to score just the 32 runs against the Englishman and has found no answer at all despite repeatedly getting out in the same fashion. Broad has worked the Aussie opener over with his ability to seam the ball both ways from around off-stump with Warner either falling lbw to the incoming delivery or feathering an edge to the slip cordon to the one that goes away.
Warner will be afforded one final chance to get back at Broad, with Justin Langer continuing to back the misfiring opener, and he will be determined to have the last laugh in what has been a completely lopsided battle so far.
Jack Leach v Steve Smith
Pictures of Steve Smith supposedly mocking Jack Leach by wearing a pear of glasses to celebrate Australia’s win in the fourth Test have whipped up quite the storm on social media in England.
The Australian team management has swiftly denied those accusations by stating that Smith was simply giving a nod to former opening batsman Chris Rogers. While the controversy is nothing but a storm in a teacup, the battle between the two players across the 22 yards at the Oval could prove to be an interesting one.
Statistically, Smith’s least-favourite bowlers to face are left-armed spinners and Leach did give him some troubles at Old Trafford before he went on to notch a double ton. Unfortunately for the England spinner, he committed the cardinal sin of overstepping when he had Smith caught at first slip and that proved to be a costly mistake with the Aussie making England pay.
Leach might still be England’s best bet to trouble Smith at the Oval given the ease with which the Aussie batsman dealt with Jofra Archer in the last Test.
Australian head coach Justin Langer has denied Steve Smith was mocking Jack Leach after their fourth Test victory which saw the team retain the Ashes— Sky Sports Cricket (@SkyCricket) September 10, 2019
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.