England LWDLW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
How much more of a spotlight does Steven Smith need? After 671 runs in five innings – including three hundreds (one of them a double) and a lowest score of 82 – Australia’s greatest batsman for a generation has moved on to a higher plane this summer. He could even have been challenging the unchallengeable – Don Bradman’s 1930 tally of 974 runs in a single series – had it not been for the concussion injury that caused his absence at Headingley. As it is, he has a maximum of two more innings to complete a simply extraordinary body of work, and confirm beyond any remaining doubt that this series will be recalled as Smith’s Ashes.
It’s a massive five days for England’s under-fire captain, Joe Root. Though Bayliss claimed that Root was under “no pressure” from any of the decision-makers within English cricket, the facts of his tenure are stark. His average since taking over as captain in 2017 has plummeted from 52 to 40, and no England captain since Archie MacLaren at the turn of the 20th century has survived the loss of consecutive Ashes series. The difference between 3-1 and 2-2 will be of huge personal relevance therefore, and Root will know that his own return to form would be the likeliest catalyst for an England win. So far this Ashes, he’s scored three fifties and a highest of 77 – tellingly, the most he’s made in any series since the 2017-18 Ashes – but three ducks too, two of them golden ones. It’s been more “nearly or nothing” than “all or nothing”, but if any England batsman has the pedigree to keep up with Smith, it has to be Root.
England’s balance has been dictated by Stokes’ inability to bowl his expected number of overs, having pulled up mid-over with a shoulder complaint at Old Trafford. He put in an energetic showing at nets on the eve of the game, batting, bowling and running around the outfield with his habitual vigour, but England have decided not to risk his long-term fitness. He plays as a batsman only, with Roy missing out on his home ground. Sam Curran’s all-round abilities will feature for the first time this series, alongside Chris Woakes, who slots back in at the expense of Craig Overton – the nearly man of England’s Old Trafford rearguard.
England: 1 Rory Burns, 2 Joe Denly, 3 Joe Root (capt), 4 Ben Stokes, 5 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 6 Jos Buttler, 7 Sam Curran, 8 Chris Woakes, 9 Jofra Archer, 10 Stuart Broad, 11 Jack Leach.
Mitchell Marsh has been drafted into the Australia XII at the expense of Travis Head, who has managed 191 runs at 27.28 in the four Tests. He will provide extra bowling options to a hard-worked four-man attack, albeit that the seamers have been rotated throughout the summer. That could yet continue in this game, with Justin Langer floating the possibility of Cummins being rested after leading the line with 24 wickets in the sharp end of the campaign. James Pattinson misses out, so Peter Siddle comes back into contention.
Australia: 1 David Warner, 2 Marcus Harris, 3 Marnus Labuschagne, 4 Steven Smith, 5 Matthew Wade, 6 Mitchell Marsh, 7 Tim Paine (capt & wk), 8 Pat Cummins, 9 Peter Siddle/Mitchell Starc, 10 Josh Hazlewood, 11 Nathan Lyon.
Pitch and conditions
The pitch that’s been prepared for this fifth Test looks brown and flat in the truest Oval tradition – a fact that doubtless will not please the onlooking James Anderson, in the wake of his comments yesterday about the conditions not favouring the home side. Similarly, the weather is set to be unexpectedly clement for mid-September. Overcast on the first day, then giving way to sunny conditions heading into the weekend.
Stats that matter
Smith (current series average: 134.20) is returning to a venue where he has played two Tests, in 2013 and 2015, and scored two centuries at 144.00
David Warner, by contrast, has scored 79 runs at 9.87 in the series to date, including seven single-figure scores in eight innings – the joint-most by any opener in a Test series.
Warner has also succumbed to Broad in six of those eight innings. Only Moeen Ali, who fell to Nathan Lyon on seven occasions in 2017-18, has a worse head-to-head record in a Test series.
Smith’s current tally of 671 runs is more than twice as many as any other Australian batsman in this year’s Ashes, with only Stokes (354) passing the halfway mark for England.
England have not lost a Test series on home soil since Sri Lanka beat them 1-0 in a two-Test rubber in 2014. They did, however, draw 2-2 with Pakistan in 2016, including a ten-wicket defeat in the final Test at The OvalQuotes
“It’s bitterly disappointing not to have the won the Ashes back, but we haven’t lost anything yet. We’re fully focussed on doing everything we can to finish the series 2-2.”
Joe Root, England’s captain, is focusing on the positives
“There’s no such thing as dead rubbers and certainly against England, there’s never a dead rubber. We’re up for it. We’re ready.”
Tim Paine, Australia’s captain, is gunning to finish on a high