Sports

Australia aim to clinch the Ashes with England needing inspiration

Preview

The series is still alive, but only just, with England making four changes as they look to hit back

Big Picture

The Ashes is alive heading to Melbourne…thanks to the schedule. In the last two series Australia have had things tied up before Christmas, but with two Tests in the New Year this iconic fixture was always going to have plenty riding on it regardless of what happened in the first two games.

And what has happened is that England have been steamrollered. Sydney, the venue for the fourth Test, has not had an Ashes Test without the urn retained since 1994-95 and it would be a brave person to think it will come the first week of January.

Things have gone almost perfectly for Australia barring the lack of runs for Marcus Harris. And it’s still possible to say that when their captain, Pat Cummins, was ruled out on the morning of a Test as a Covid close contact. The way they won the second Test with half their first-choice attack missing and a stand-in skipper (albeit an experienced one) was an encouraging sign for the way this team is developing.
England, however, have barely challenged them so far. When there was a glimpse of the batting wobbling in Brisbane Travis Head slammed the door shut with a thrilling century. When England briefly fought back on the second day in Adelaide, Alex Carey’s maiden Test fifty helped repel them. When Joe Root and Dawid Malan threatened a counterattack on the third day, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon and Cameron Green sucked the life out of the innings.
It is perhaps worth noting that in their last two Ashes drubbings, Melbourne has produced some of England’s better cricket. In 2013-14 they actually claimed a first-innings lead before being unable to make the most of it and slumping to defeat while four years ago Alastair Cook’s unbeaten 244 put them on top but a dour pitch had the final say. Even that, however, is slim pickings.
What they need this time is something akin to the spirit of 1998-99 when they arrived 2-0 down (Australia had retained the Ashes) and having been humiliated by Australia A but through the performances of Alec Stewart, Darren Gough and Dean Headley among others conjured a remarkable 12-run victory. Anything less than a win and the Ashes are gone with jobs perhaps to follow.

Form guide

(most recent first)

Australia WWLDL
England LLLWL

In the spotlight

When the two parts of Cameron Green‘s game come together he could be a world beater. But it hasn’t quite happened yet. Last season against India his batting impressed as he worked his way back to bowling after injuries. In this series, the bowling has taken centre stage while the batting has been less convincing. It remains early days in what should be a long career, but England’s success against Green has been one of their few plus points (the second-innings runs in Adelaide were largely freebies). At the Gabba he shouldered arms first ball and lost off stump then in Adelaide he was beaten by a terrific delivery from Ben Stokes that did the same damage. Things are not quite in sync. However, he’s still had a major say by removing Joe Root twice. That would be a handy skill to continue.

England’s entire top order is under the scanner, even those who have made runs. In lower-scoring games back home a brace of 80s might be enough on occasions, but that will rarely be the case in Australia. Techniques are being picked apart as well, especially with the opening pair of Rory Burns and Haseeb Hameed. The former has lost his place to Zak Crawley. Jos Buttler was a missed chance away from having his series – and maybe Test career – ended after Adelaide. It is not just this contest that has shown up the batting failings, but unless they find some answers it could be a particularly gruesome few weeks.

Team news

Australia have juggled their fast-bowling pack again. Cummins’ is back after his enforced absence in place of Michael Neser while Scott Boland will make his debut in place of Jhye Richardson who has a leg injury. Josh Hazlewood has not recovered from his side strain.

Australia 1 David Warner, 2 Marcus Harris, 3 Marnus Labuschagne, 4 Steven Smith, 5 Travis Head, 6 Cameron Green, 7 Alex Carey (wk), 8 Pat Cummins (capt), 9 Mitchell Starc, 10 Scott Boland, 11 Nathan Lyon

As expected, England have made a number of changes. Rory Burns, Ollie Pope, Chris Woakes and Stuart Broad have all been left out in favour of Crawley, Jonny Bairstow, Mark Wood and Jack Leach. It means that England have what looks a more balanced attack with the extra pace of Wood and left-arm spin of Leach, although he is sure to be targeted by the Australia batters as he was in Brisbane.

England 1 Haseeb Hameed, 2 Zak Crawley, 3 Dawid Malan, 4 Joe Root (capt), 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Jonny Bairstow, 7 Jos Buttler (wk), 8 Ollie Robinson, 9 Mark Wood, 10 Jack Leach, 11 James Anderson

Pitch and conditions

The MCG surface has been through a facelift since the last Ashes and everything points to a pitch that should offer something for everyone. There was a decent covering of grass two days out although some of that may be trimmed off. In recent seasons bounce and carry has also returned. The weather is set fair through with temperatures ranging from the low teens to mid-20s so heat should not be a factor.

Stats and trivia

  • Joe Root needs 159 runs to set a new record for a Test batter in a calendar year
  • England are five ducks away from equalling their duck-est year of 54 in 1998
  • Quotes

    “I love that just about every player from our team has got into the series and had a real big impact.”
    Pat Cummins on the team effort from Australia

    “The only thing I’m worried about is winning this week. Start well and get that first hour right.”
    Joe Root when asked about his future as Test captain

    Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo

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    ESPNcricinfo

    ESPNcricinfo is a sports news website exclusively for the game of cricket. The site features news, articles, live coverage of cricket matches, and StatsGuru, a database of historical matches and players from the 18th century to the present. As of March 2018, Sambit Bal was the editor.

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