More than pride at stake for England as Australia seek to confirm Ashes dominance
Well, that feelgood factor didn't last quite as long as intended for England. The miracle of Headingley - Ben Stokes' glorious snatching of Ashes salvation from the jaws of ignominy - will live on for all who witnessed it, savoured it (and, yes, despaired of it). But now, thanks to the normality-restoring events at Old Trafford, it stands only as a snapshot of one-off Test glory, rather than a launchpad for that extraordinary series turnaround that England briefly envisioned.
Posterity will still judge the events of that unforgettable afternoon kindly - by any criteria, it remains one of the greatest Tests ever played - but its overall impact must now be seen along the same lines of England's three-run win in Melbourne in 1982-83, rather than the two-run triumph of Edgbaston 2005, let alone Ian Botham's original Headingley heist in 1981.
For Australia, however … the narrative is one of redemption, vindication and, over the course of the next five days, a shot at immortality. It has been 18 long years since the Ashes were retained in England, in that steamrolling summer of 2001, when Steve Waugh signed off a 4-1 series win with a one-legged hundred on this very ground at The Oval, and that is an achievement in itself that Tim Paine and his cohorts rightly celebrated long into the night at Old Trafford over the weekend.
But, even allowing for the short turnaround between Tests, there will remain intense motivation in Australia's ranks to finish what they have started, just as Andrew Strauss' men achieved in very similar circumstances on England's triumphant tour of Australia in 2010-11. Then, and now, a 3-1 series win would be a scoreline befitting the dominance that the visitors have exerted at the key moments of the series. A 2-2 draw, the first in an Ashes rubber since 1972, would provide England with welcome succour, but one that, if they are honest with themselves, they would scarcely have merited over the course of the five Tests.
If that seems a harsh judgement on an England campaign that has featured Stokes at his superhuman best, Stuart Broad at his fullest and fastest for months, and moments of unforgettable fire and theatre from Jofra Archer, then it is hard to look at the rest of the England line-up and find any unequivocal success stories. Rory Burns has had his moments - certainly relative to any of the other opening batsmen on either side - but the middle order, Stokes aside, has been apologetically poor and showing next to no signs of a functional revival.
To a large degree, of course, that is down to the relentless brilliance of Australia's bowling attack - the most talented and tenacious pack of performers to have visited these shores since that 2001 summer of McGrath, Warne, Lee and Gillespie in his pomp. In Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, Australia have a pair of spearheads who have at times seemed, well, possessed, as they have zeroed in on the top of that off stump time and time again and torment the techniques of an increasingly ragged set of England performers.
It's surprising, therefore, that the selectors named an unchanged 13-man squad for this match - although the impending departure of the coach, Trevor Bayliss, does mitigate that decision to a degree. It would arguably have placed the likes of Dom Sibley, Ollie Pope or Zak Crawley on a hiding to nothing to be drafted in at this stage of the series only to have to impress a brand-new regime when next month's tour of New Zealand gets underway.
Besides, it has always been Bayliss' policy to give his players one chance too many to impress, rather than one too few. So, had it not been for Stokes's shoulder problem, then Jason Roy (average: 13.75) would surely have been spared the axe. In his absence, the spotlight falls more squarely on Jonny Bairstow (25.42) and Jos Buttler (16.25) - the two other biggest guns who simply haven't been at the races this series. If they cannot recapture their best in the coming days, there's a case to be made to purge each of those white-ball heroes from the red-ball set-up, and start afresh with brand new ingredients.
For this Oval Test is unlikely to witness any of its traditional farewell performances - certainly nothing to rank alongside Alastair Cook's bowing-out against India last summer - but the coming five days are sure to resonate as a farewell to a remarkable English summer. The departure of Bayliss confirms the end of a four-year cycle for English cricket, one which delivered untold glory in white-ball cricket, but to the detriment of England's proud standards in the Test game. No-one in their right minds would argue that the sacrifice wasn't worth it, but the rebalancing of priorities must begin now. Because the Ashes still matter deeply to all who play and watch it. Perhaps more so than came to be believed in the 18 long years when England victories on home soil were taken for granted.
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 Oval
"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