England are looking to take a giant stride towards restoring parity in the Ashes 2019 series as they take the field on the penultimate day of the final Test against Australia at the Oval.
The hosts reached 313-8 in their second-innings at stumps on Day Three with their overall lead in the match standing at a commanding 382.
The visitors, on the other hand, have a massive job on their hands if they are to keep their dream of winning a first Ashes series on English soil since 2001 alive.
Will the hosts march their way to victory to level the series or will the Aussies summon an inspired fightback at the Oval? Find out by following the LIVE ball-by-ball updates from London below.
It hasn’t been the best of times to be an opener in England with bowlers running the rule for the most part in the ongoing Ashes series.
Opening batsmen from both sides have struggled massively in the five-match series which is about to veer towards its conclusion at the Oval.
As the series finale draws near after nearly six weeks of red-ball cricketing action, we look at how the openers from both sides have fared in the Ashes.
ENGLAND OPENING STATS
Opening stands in series
Edgbaston: 22 and 19
Lord’s: 0 and 9
Headingley: 10 and 15
Old Trafford: 10 and 0
The Oval: 27 and 54
Average opening stand: 20.75
With an average of nearly 50, England opener Rory Burns has been the exception to the rule in the current Ashes series. The left-hander registered a gritty ton on his Ashes debut at Edgbaston and he has since followed that up with well-deserved half-centuries at Lord’s and Old Trafford.
Given the way his more experienced counterparts have performed in the series, Burns’ run tally starts looking even more impressive. He has had to contend with a formidable Aussie pace unit led by Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood but has still managed to hold his own.
The 33-year-old Kent batsman was converted into a makeshift opener for the final two Tests after continuous failures for Jason Roy in the position. Denly’s ascension to the opening spot has been a fairly successful experiment with the right-hander registering half-centuries in the second innings at both Manchester and the Oval.
His partnership for 54 in the second innings in the ongoing final Test is the only time any opening pair has registered a half-century stand in the Ashes 2019.
The England limited-overs opener’s Test introduction hasn’t gone according to plan with the right-hander’s limited technique and footwork being horribly exposed by the Australian bowlers.
Roy could muster just the 57 runs in three Tests before he was dropped to No4 for the fourth Test at Manchester in a switch with Denly. Even that move failed to work for the right-hander who was completely axed from the squad for the final Test.
AUSTRALIA OPENING STATS
Opening stands in series
Edgbaston: 2 and 13
Lord’s: 11 and 13
Headingley: 12 and 10
Old Trafford: 1 and 0
The Oval: 5
Average opening stand: 9.57
Warner’s run tally of 84 looks even more shambolic considering the fact that 61 of them came in a single innings at Headingley. The Australia opener has been completely owned by Stuart Broad in the series with the England pacer getting the better of him on six separate occasions.
Six of the left-hander’s seven innings so far have resulted in single-digit scores while he has bagged three ducks in the process as well. In a disastrous series for top-order batsmen, Warner has been the biggest culprit.
The left-hander has been opening the batting alongside Warner since the third Test at Lord’s but his performances have been equally abysmal. Harris has only managed to get into double-digits twice in the series with the left-hander failing to improve things for Australia since replacing Cameron Bancroft.
The fact that he has also dropped some important catches in the field has only added to his misery in England.
Like Warner, Bancroft’s return to the Test fold has been a dismal one with the right-hander struggling badly in England before being dropped to make way for Harris.
It has been a big battle for Bancroft just to survive whenever he has been at the crease in the series with his strike-rate of approximately 27 being the lowest among all specialist batsmen from either side.
He hasn’t been able to defend and neither has he been able to take the attack to the opposition.
The mental gymnastics currently being performed by Virat Kohli and the Indian team management has to be applauded for effort, even as an air of uncertainty continues to linger over MS Dhoni’s international future.
The veteran wicketkeeper-batsman’s India future has been the source of constant speculation ever since the 2019 World Cup drew to a close. The picture isn’t any clearer for both selectors and fans alike nearly two months later.
The 38-year-old made himself ‘unavailable’ for India’s recent tour of the West Indies, with young Rishabh Pant being handed the gloves for all three formats in the Caribbean. At the time of the squad announcement, chief selector MSK Prasad stated in clear terms that Pant was being groomed as the long-term wicketkeeper of India going forward.
Fast forward a few weeks and Dhoni’s name was the big absentee as India named their T20 squad for the upcoming series against South Africa at home. Once again, the official line from selector Prasad at the squad announcement was that Dhoni had made himself unavailable for the clashes.
It is impossible to guess what exactly is going on in Dhoni’s mind right now, but there’s no denying that his silence on the issue is only adding to the pressure on Kohli and the rest of the team management.
Kohli witnessed firsthand the frenzy surrounding Dhoni and a potential retirement when he tweeted an image on his social media with a tribute to the veteran. That innocuous image sent India social media in a tailspin, with many taking it as an indication of an upcoming retirement for the Ranchi wicketkeeper.
When Kohli addressed the media on the eve of the T20 series against South Africa a day later, the questions on Dhoni were bound to come.
“Look experience is always going to matter whether you like it or not,” he replied.
“I mean there are a numerous number of times people have given up on sportsmen, and they have proved people wrong, and he has done that many times in his career as well. So, one great thing about him is that he thinks for India cricket.
“And whatever we think, he is on the same page. The alignment is there. The kind of mindset he has had is to groom youngsters and give them opportunities, and he is still the same person.”
Is the ‘alignment’ Kohli talks about really there? Are Dhoni and the Indian team management really on the same page? Unfortunately, it is all too vague.
At the age of 38, the only realistic milestone available for Dhoni is competing in the 2020 T20 World Cup in Australia. His Test career is long over, while there is really no point in persisting with him in the ODI format given that the next four-year World Cup cycle has only gotten under way recently.
With Pant declared as the long-term successor by the team management, it is expected that the youngster will don the gloves for India in the 2023 World Cup set to take place in the subcontinent.
As such, it would make sense for India to go with Pant as the first-choice in the 2020 T20 World Cup as well if they are to properly blood him and prepare him for the biggest of stages in international cricket.
To be fair to the India team selectors and team management, they have still stuck to their guns by persisting with Pant against West Indies and now South Africa in the absence of clarity over Dhoni’s future. Whether the decision has been taken in ‘alignment’ with Dhoni or in defiance of him will only become clear in the months ahead.
With Dhoni not giving any indication of the future for now, his potential return to the team will continue to hang like a sword over the heads of Pant and other aspiring India wicketkeeepers.
For now, the former World Cup winning skipper remains the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ and is the kind of unneeded attention that Kohli and team India could well do without as they look to build for the future.