Well that was not in the script of a triumphant English summer! Australia deservedly won the Fourth Test at Old Trafford and secured an unassailable 2-1 series lead. It means the Ashes, previously in Australian hands, will be retained by Tim Paine’s touring side, the first side from Down Under to take the urn home with them since 2001.
With one match remaining, the question is will Australia secure a series win or can Joe Root’s England secure a 2-2 draw?
James Buttler assesses the best bets for the Fifth Ashes Test at The Oval…
ENGLAND PLAYING FOR PRIDE
It has been one hell of a summer. A first 50-over Cricket World Cup success and a thrilling Ashes series have raised the profile of cricket in England. It all comes to an end in London with Joe Root watching his opposite number lift the prized urn, but he will want his England side to end on a high note.
I have been an advocate of the England selectors ringing the changes for this final Test. This was an opportunity to get rid of the likes of Jason Roy and Jos Buttler who have not made the grade during the series and introduce Warwickshire’s Dom Sibley and Surrey’s Ollie Pope, who should be part of England’s Test future. Too many of England’s Test team have been chosen on their white ball glories. This must be the wake-up call the selectors heed and be a line in the sand. They planned for four years for World Cup glory and now need to do the same with the Test side.
But we will have to wait for the squad to tour New Zealand to see how brave they are prepared to be as the selectors have named an unchanged squad for The Oval. Star all-rounder Ben Stokes has a slight injury which means he will not bowl in the final Test, but he will remain in the side as a batsman. That opens the door for left-armer Sam Curran to come into the XI for the first time this season, after carrying drinks at every other match, to replace either Buttler or Roy. That change would retain the balance in the team and give Curran a chance to remind the nation that he is a serious young talent. It also gives the opportunity to rest, or discard, either Roy or Buttler.
THE AUSSIES DESERVE THEIR SUCCESS
There have only been a few differences between the two teams, but they have been crucial.
Firstly, Steve Smith is a freak of nature. His appetite for scoring runs this summer has been incredible. He has bounced back into the Test side after suspension and batted even better than before. Only the great Sir Don Bradman sits above the quirky right-hander’s Tests stats and it won’t end here. Smith averages 64.81 across his 122 innings and bad news for those hoping he rests on his laurels with the urn won.
In his two Tests at The Oval he has batted three times, scored 288 runs, hit two centuries and averages 144.00. It simply isn’t worth looking at anyone else to be Australia’s top run scorer in this final match of the series. The hunger is there to improve upon his 671 runs at 134.20 from five innings during this series. The 303 runs he needs to usurp Bradman’s 1930 heroics might be beyond him, but he will be trying and, at 5/4 to be the top scorer in his country’s first innings, he’s worth backing.
Secondly, the Australians have taken the Ashes more seriously. England concentrated on World Cup success and hoped the Tests would follow. The Justin Langer coached tourists have left no stone unturned in their preparation and it has worked. The Aussies had their A-team in England, players in county cricket and have rotated their impressive pace attack brilliantly.
And, that pace attack has stood up and delivered. Pat Cummins (24 wickets) and Josh Hazlewood (18) have been supported by James Pattinson, Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc. In Nathan Lyon (16) they also have the best spinner on show.
Cummins is the number one ranked Test bowler in the ICC Rankings and is the man to back at The Oval to be the leading Aussie wicket-taker at 2/1 with Coral. He will get bounce in London and will continue to cause the England top order plenty of problems.
WHAT NEXT FOR JOE ROOT?
England’s captain is under pressure as pundits and social media question his captaincy. I’ve known Joe Root since he was a kid coming through the Yorkshire Academy and appearances are deceiving. He looks angelic, soft, wouldn’t say boo to a goose. In reality Root is tough, respected by his peers and determined. His team’s failure to regain the Ashes will be hurting him deeply.
He is also a fierce competitor who, rather than drafting a resignation letter, will be forging plans to get the urn back at the earliest opportunity. Australia have been better in this series, but the gap is not huge and if Root is given the right team and can learn from his mistakes, he is the right man to take the Test team forward.
There are also few other applicants to replace him. Jos Buttler, the obvious choice, is struggling to keep his place. It would be madness to overburden Ben Stokes. And Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson are not far from retirement. If Rory Burns nails down his place he could be an option, but the Surrey skipper needs more time to acclimatise to the step up.
Root needs to get his own game ticking and The Oval is a ground he enjoys playing at. In six matches at the ground he has scored 514 runs at an average of 51.40 and, at 3/1, he is a sensible punt to be England’s top scorer in the first innings.
Burns, on his home ground, is however great value at around 9/2. The opener has shown signs this summer that he is capable of solving one of England’s problems in the opener role. His biggest quality appears to be his readiness to learn from mistakes.
The step up from the county game is huge and Burns has been tested to the full, but each time he takes a blow he comes back stronger. The glare of the Ashes is the biggest challenge an England player will face. It is where boys become men, or where careers are stalled. Burns scored a century (133) in the First Test and has contributed since with a total of 323 runs at an average of 40.37. He’s guaranteed to be on the tours this winter and can step up again on a ground he knows well.
HOW DO YOU GET STEVE SMITH OUT?
A question that has spanned the series, for which no answer has yet been found by England’s bowlers. The Oval is a track that aids the speedsters and Jofra Archer should get pace and bounce as he renews his battle with the prolific Australian.
Archer has been struggling to maintain his high octane start to his Test career, but his eyes should light up if the wicket offers him the expected assistance. The Oval will turn later in the game but, as with the Cummins bet, take the fastest bowler to do the most damage in the first innings. If Jofra can bowl his quicker spells he should reap rewards. If he gets it right the Smith vs Archer duel that had us glued during the Lord’s Test is set to give us another exciting episode. Archer is the play to be England’s leading wicket taker in the first innings.
CAN ENGLAND SALVAGE A DRAWN SERIES?
I gave you a stat ahead of the Second Test and it is worth repeating: The last time England lost back-to-back Tests on home soil was back in way 2008 against South Africa. The last 10 times England lost a home Test match they have bounced back with a win in the next game.
After losing the First Test, England came back with a draw at Lord’s and would have won had the weather not intervened, so update the stats to the last 11 times England have lost a home Test they were not beaten in the next game.
I’m expecting higher scores at The Oval and the England win or a draw are the plays. The draw is a very tasty price, but I’m taking the England win as the weather forecast is good and, other than Smith, none of the players are used to batting long.
SAVE THE BEST BET UNTIL LAST
The man of the match markets usually provides great value, but when the series is being dominated by one man it does skew the market somewhat.
That said, the favourite is the best bet of this Test. The stats are overwhelmingly in favour of taking Steve Smith as Man of the Match.
I’ve already mentioned his excellent record at The Oval. Then add in his form against England. Since the Oval Test in 2015, Smith has scored 1501 runs in 13 Ashes knocks at an average of 136.45. The full sequence is 143, 141*, 40, 6, 239, 76, 102*, 83, 144, 142, 92, 211 and 82.
England have found no answer and Smith at 5/1 to be Man of the Match again, to add to his inevitable Man of the Series award, is a great bet.