11 September 2019, by: Jonhenry Wilson

THE ASHES: FIFTH TEST PREVIEW

We preview the fifth Ashes Test where Australia have a 2-1 series lead having already secured the urn.

However, the fifth and final Test at the Oval provides England a chance to level matters and restore some pride.

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Overview

Australia retained the Ashes title on the back of a 185-run victory in the fourth Test at Old Trafford in Manchester, but the current contest requires a decider this week at The Oval in London.

Arguably Test cricket’s greatest rivalry has witnessed several entertaining series since the first in 1883. More than 130 years later, the 2019 affair must remain among the most memorable. From batsman Steven Smith’s twin tons at Edgbaston in Birmingham to fast bowler Jofra Archer’s telling Test debut at Lord’s in London, the early promise continued with all-rounder Ben Stokes’ sensational fourth-innings century at Headingley in Leeds. In Manchester, Smith again rose to the fore with a remarkable double-ton and counterattacking 82.

England won the World Cup final in controversial circumstances less than a month ago. That coveted limited-overs status has quickly been tarnished by bouts of ineptitude in Test match cricket. Joe Root and company are not as good as they think they are – and this overconfidence has tolled against the Australians.

Opportunity for some redemption, however, will beckon at The Oval. They have defiantly named an unchanged squad, which is still sans the services of the injured James Anderson. Calls for the inclusion of the young Dominic Sibley and Ollie Pope have been ignored, with newfound middle-order batsman Jason Roy retained. How the first-choice XI will differ, though, remains to be seen.

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Personnel

Stokes is nursing a minor shoulder injury, but has been named in the squad regardless – and can play as a specialist batsman. If that transpires, right-arm seamer Chris Woakes or left-armer Sam Curran will need to be drafted into the XI to bolster the bowling resources. All-rounder Craig Overton, oddly, was preferred to Woakes and Curran at Old Trafford. He didn’t prove successful – and perhaps there is room for Woakes and Curran instead at The Oval.

Australia are under increasing pressure to bench opening batsman David Warner. The hard-hitting left-hander, like Roy, has been unable to convert a solid stretch of form at limited-overs level into success in Test match cricket. Warner has become seamer Stuart Broad’s veritable ‘bunny’ this series. He has, indeed, been dismissed by Broad six times – and has a mere 79 runs to show for eight innings. That shoddy stretch includes three ducks – and four other single-figure scores. A recall for fellow opener Cameron Bancroft, then, seems imminent.

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Strengths and weaknesses

England’s bowling tactics were peculiar in Manchester. Fast bowler Jofra Archer hasn’t come close to reaching the pace generated at Lord’s, while a slew of short balls became rather predictable. Bowling wide to Smith in the hope of a rash shot, meanwhile, has not worked. Smith has plenty of patience and is happy to leave rather than fish outside the off-stump. A more direct approach, lined with additional yorkers and less prone to the leg-side, is advisable.

Australia will again need to carefully manage the workload of the fast bowlers. The rotation of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Peter Siddle has been appropriate – and now might be the time to loop in the South African-born Michael Neser. Hazlewood, then, could be rested. Former captain Ricky Ponting, however, has publicly stated Australia won’t likely change the XI in a push for a series victory.

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Conditions

England’s winning record in the last 10 Test matches at The Oval is just 50 percent, which hardly bodes well for a difficult attempt to level the series. They haven’t beaten the Aussies in the longest format at this venue in a decade.

While the pitch in Manchester was more friendly to the batsmen than the bowlers, the same isn’t likely in London, where a good contest between both is anticipated. England’s last Test here was against India in September 2018, when two specialist slow bowlers – left-armer Moeen Ali and leg-spinner Adil Rashid were deployed. That won’t occur this time.

The Aussies will fondly remember 2015’s Test visit to The Oval, where Smith, Starc and Siddle starred in an innings and 45-run triumph. Australia could field six of the XI from four years ago this week, as Warner, spinner Nathan Lyon and all-rounder Mitchell Marsh are still present.

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Preferred Punts

England’s bowling attack lacks spice, especially in the absence of Anderson. The addition of Curran should probably have happened two Tests ago. If there is one option England haven’t explored against the near indomitable Smith this series, it’s a left-arm seamer. Curran has a knack for breaking big partnerships. His approach to Smith and the in-form Marnus Labuschagne could be vital during England’s bid to square the series.

Labuschagne has booked a berth in the first-choice middle-order for the foreseeable future – and now just needs to welcome a maiden Test century. It’s tough to criticise a batsman who struck four consecutive half-tons against Broad and cohorts, but that first century remains elusive. This week is as good a time as any to find it.

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