By Kieran Wellington

  • England’s woeful opening partnership has forced their hand with Jason Roy set to be removed from the new ball firing line
  • Joe Denly will replace Roy as opener, with the Surrey man coming in at four: however, Denly averages less than 25 in Tests so far
  • On the bowling front, James Anderson will not get the chance to bowl from his own end at Old Trafford, with his calf injury ruling him out for the series: Somerset’s Craig Overton makes up the 13-man squad
MANCHESTER, UK – Both Australia and England will hope their batting issues have been resolved in time to supplement their potent bowling attacks as The Ashes 2019 shapes up to be the closest series since 2005

 

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Momentum is a key concept in sport, but in a tussle contested over two months, an Ashes series is where momentum feels the most tangible. When Nathan Lyon fumbled the ball with Jack Leach well short of his ground, there was momentum rearing its head: Australia were almost assured of retaining that precious urn, but in a moment, only exacerbated by umpire Joel Wilson‘s not out decision the very next ball when Headingley hero Ben Stokes was struck plumb in front, the entire outlook changed.

It took one of the greatest Test innings ever to do it, but in a single 76-run partnership, a figure so unremarkable without its context, Stokes and Leach changed the conversation. Journalists everywhere had to delete thousands of words consigning another England Test side to a wretched Ashes performance, only this time they had the added embarrassment of losing in front of their own crowd. It was to be coach Trevor Bayliss‘ last act, a total failure, and perhaps Joe Root‘s last Test as a captain, out of his depth. And yet, and yet, sport has a way of rewriting history in a matter of hours, minutes, even seconds.

357-9. Leach tucked a single off his hip for the most important 1* ever. 358-9. Ben Stokes blasted a short, wide ball from the world number one bowler Pat Cummins through the infield and to the boundary. The western terrace at Headingley erupted. Every single Englishman making up the record-breaking viewing figure for a Test match on Sky – 2.1 million – had their anxiety replaced by pure elation. Goosebumps. Momentum.

 

What can the Aussies change?

“We felt a bit like we got the Ashes stolen the other day. And to England’s credit, that’s what they did. They won that Test match, so we felt a bit like it’d been stolen from us. Now we’ve got to work out what we’re going to do, and use that as fire.” As reported in ESPN CricInfoJustin Langer has been keenly aware of just how that Headingley denouement has altered perceptions – and is certainly talking the good talk in the build up to Old Trafford. But what will their game plan be to stop England, Stokes and what is sure to be a raucous Manchester crowd from taking the Ashes into a decider for the first time since in a decade?

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Well, for starters they have a healthy Steve Smith back in their ranks. By current numbers, Smith is the second best Test batsman of all time with an average of 63.24, and a scarcely believable recent Ashes record of six tons in his last 11 innings.

Whether Smith is brave or stupid to suggest he is not fazed by Archer is up for debate, but Australia are definitely holding down the ‘strong and stable’ mentality a lot better than our former Prime Minister. One unexpected bright spot from Smith’s enforced absence has been the form of his replacement, the wonderfully named Marnus Labuschagne. Since replacing Smith as a concussion substitute for the second innings at Lord’s, the middle-order batsman has scored 59, 74 and 80, making him comfortably Australia’s second best batsman of the series – the rest average 32 or lower.

This means Labuschagne is undroppable, despite batting in Smith’s favoured no.4 spot up until now. Therefore, the reshuffle is likely to put Smith back at four and Labuschagne at no.3. Already this appears to be a much stronger top four than either side has been able to muster so far, and the senior figure David Warner along with whoever Australia name as their other opener, must set a platform for the in-form Labuschagne and Smith to capitalise on. If they can do that, they can go a long way to putting the urn out of even Stokes’ reach (probably).

 

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The reshuffles don’t end there…

As seems almost tradition midway through an Ashes series nowadays, England’s batting lineup is also going through some surgery as they head to Manchester. Australia and England have always produced an array of fantastic bowlers in English conditions, and this series is no different. But never have the opening partnerships on both sides been so incapable of living with the barrage of high-quality fast bowling that any Ashes batsman must face.

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Reading off the numbers that Jason Roy, Rory Burns, Cameron Bancroft, Marcus Harris and Warner have put together at the top of the order is like dictating the ages of your extended family’s children that you’d totally forgotten about: England’s goes 22, 19, 0 (alright, not an age), 9, 10, 15. Australia’s is 2, 13, 11, 13, 12, 10. That means the average opening stand has reached just 11.33, which is the lowest in any Ashes series in the last 130 years. For England to win a Test match after being bowled out for 67 was about as unprecedented as these woeful figures: it truly has been a crazy series.

The numbers can’t continue for England. Something has to give, even though Roy and Burns are best mates and teammates at Surrey. The fact is Bayliss and the England selectors were naive in the extreme to think that Roy could just stroll out as a Test opener and do the same damage as he does when he plays white-ball cricket for his country. It was a nonsense decision to ask Roy to open in Test match cricket, but eminently sensible to select him.

That’s why Roy hasn’t got the bullet quite yet, despite averaging an appalling 9.50 so far. He will move to no.4 in an attempt to remove him from the crosshairs of Cummins and co with the brand new ball, a frightening prospect for most current batsmen. Joe Denly‘s reward for scoring a gritty half-century in that remarkable run chase in Leeds is to do what no English batsman wants, or seems able, to do right now and open the batting – bearing in mind he is averaging less than 25, this can’t be a long-term solution.

But it is probably the right call, as Denly admits himself, as reported in ESPN CricInfo: “Obviously Jason is going to bat four and that’s great for English cricket. With Jason Roy in the team we are a better team and with him coming in at four, hopefully with the new ball worn off and myself and Rory Burns doing our job at the top, it allows him to come in and play his way. He’s a great player to have there.”

There have been a lot of doubters surrounding the 33-year-old’s Test credentials, and a move up to the most difficult position in cricket right now will not make his task any easier of keeping the nay-sayers quiet, especially as he has only ever managed one century at the top of the order in first-class cricket. It would be like picking a grape and expecting it to get you drunk. It’s certainly a regression from England, as they pick their two slowest specialist batsmen so far in this series – bar Jos Buttler, incredibly – in an attempt to absorb the blows from the Australian attack rather than to counter-punch.

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The other change will likely see Chris Woakes, who has stood up to be counted for his country so often this summer, be rested for one of Sam Curran or Craig Overton. Curran was named man of the series against India last summer, and is the greatest exponent of swing in England’s ranks – he is seen as James Anderson‘s long term replacement, and so it would be fitting to see the Surrey left-armer hoop a few from the James Anderson end this week. However, Overton has one special skill that many of the England bowlers would love to have: he’s got Smith out in Tests before. Despite averaging 42 with the ball in his three Tests, the figures do not quite back up the performances during a torrid time down under: battling on with a broken rib in Perth was testament to Overton’s unwavering attitude: he will be more than up for the fight.

But it is surely the batsmen where this game will be won and lost over the next week, and Australia’s top order does look much stronger on paper. But we’ve got Stokes in our middle order. Say no more, right?

 

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