It has been quite the comeback story for Tim Paine ever since the wicketkeeper batsman made his Australia return after a gap of seven years in the 2017-18 Ashes series Down Under.
Since then, the Tasmanian has ascended to the Australia Test captaincy in the most unexpected of manners following the ball-tampering scandal in South Africa last year and he now stands on the verge of leading the visitors to their first Ashes series win on English soil since 2001.
At 34, Paine is at the tail-end of his playing career but the wicketkeeper batsman is in no mood to retire any time soon after picking up a second wind.
“Not for me, not at the moment,” Paine replied when asked if he would consider retiring after the final Ashes Test against England which begins at the Oval on Thursday.
“I’m loving doing what I’m doing, and I think while you’ve got a job that you love you try and do it for as long as you can. I did miss a lot, I suppose, in the prime years of my cricket career.
“The positive of that now is that physically I’m in really good condition for my age, and feel really good after Test matches physically. Mentally, it’s a different story but it only takes a day to recover from that.
“While I keep enjoying it, I’ll keep doing it.”
The ongoing Ashes series has kick-started the inaugural ICC World Test Championship which will culminate after a two-year cycle with the top two teams battling it out in a one-off match at Lord’s in 2021. Paine would be 36 by the time that final comes around but the Australian is hesitant to mark it down as his future retirement date.
“I haven’t thought about it to be honest,” Paine said when asked if he would consider the end of the two-year cycle as a potential retirement point.
“I haven’t thought much past this Test match, as I’ve said in the last 18 months, I think it’s foolish at my age if you do. I’m enjoying what I’m doing and whilst I can continue to contribute in some way, I’ll continue to do it.
“I constantly talk to JL (Justin Langer) and Trevor Hohns (Australia selection chief) about what might happen or how long I might go on for, but I think we’re all comfortable and we’re all on the same page.”
Paine and his men have already retained the urn on English soil after a gap of 18 years but the Australia skipper is determined to finish with an outright series win.
“We came here to win the Ashes. We didn’t come here to retain them,” Paine stated.
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.