Issues abound as England reach the end of tumultuous four-year cycle
That was the summer of cricket that was. Well, almost. England won the World Cup and
lost failed to retain the Ashes, but there is still business to be concluded amid the mellow fruitfulness of an autumnal Kennington Oval.
For Joe Root, the final Test of the series offered the opportunity to give a rallying cry, of sorts. "It should be seen as a successful year," he said. "But we've got a chance to level this series and make it slightly better than it looks now." England's Test cricket under Trevor Bayliss has been the proverbial curate's egg, and Root suggested that he wanted to take the good parts and use them in a recipe for future success - in particular targeting the next Ashes series, in Australia in 2021-22.
There is also a desire to give Bayliss a send-off with, as Root put it, "a real big bang" after four years in charge. Victory at The Oval would enable to England to preserve their unbeaten record in home series dating back to 2014, as well as provide a potentially useful clutch of World Test Championship points.
"We are fully focussed on doing everything we can to finish the series 2-2," Root said. "In terms of my own captaincy, I know the direction I want to take this team and it is about starting that now and not after this series. It is important we win this game and have a really strong winter and move forward as a group."
So, with an opportunity for one last hurrah, and the chance to help Root produce his blueprint for winning back the Ashes in two years' time, what are the key issues for England to resolve (and do they stand a chance of resolving them)? Let's take a look.
The omission of Jason Roy, ostensibly due to Ben Stokes' shoulder injury limiting his ability to bowl, could well put a full stop on his Test ambitions. An average of 8.85 as an opener succinctly tells the story of his failure to transfer ODI belligerence into the longer format and while he could come again in the middle order, Root's appraisal was on the perfunctory side: "Jason has had an opportunity to come in and play Test cricket and get a feel for it and it has not gone quite how he would have liked. But I'm sure he will go away and work extremely hard and come again."
Rory Burns, on the other hand, has all but proven himself as steady hand at the top of the order, but who he is partnered by in New Zealand later this year may depend on whether Joe Denly can produce a significant score to back up his dogged showings against Australia so far (although they could, of course, shuttle him back down to No. 4).
In some ways, it feels as if the Test team is still in transition from the point Alastair Cook handed over the captaincy in 2017. The pillars of the team remain the same - Root, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Stuart Broad, James Anderson - although Burns and Jofra Archer might soon shoulder their way into that category.
With the possibility of players being rested for New Zealand (and a new coach unlikely to be in place), the four-Test tour of South Africa in December and January might well provide more significant pointers for the 2021-22 Ashes. "I think in terms of personnel, things might change as they have done for a while but we have to focus on the core group of players that can lead this team forward, both home and away, then build from that," Root said. "Build towards winning in Australia and use the next two years to focus on putting in a winning tour Down Under. That's a real incentive for everyone, to be part of something special down there."
On the point about building a team that can win "both home and away", Root might need to discuss next summer's strategy with Ashley Giles. While Anderson described the surfaces used for this series as favouring Australia, and suggested more could be done to push home advantage, it is unlikely that a strategy of prevailing on green seamers is going to set England up for a winning Ashes tour.
Root, who has averaged 28.00 across the Tests against Ireland and Australia, admitted that the pitches had "not been pleasant to bat on" and indicated his team would have to be adaptable. "It's not always as simple as 'produce this perfect wicket for Test cricket'," he said. "You can look at that but ultimately whatever you play on you've got to win. That's the fundamentals. Whatever you play on you've got to find a way to win the game."
'Total cricket' and all-round strength
While the last 18 months of Root's captaincy have been characterised by a fluid (or is that chaotic?) batting order, and a reliance on runs from lower down thanks to a glut of talented allrounders, a change of tack might be required to produce more consistent success. Burns, Archer and, to a lesser extent, Jack Leach have shown the benefits of picking players based on a specialist skill - while the extra pace of Mark Wood or Olly Stone, for instance, may pay dividends in South Africa or Australia.
Can England afford to continue overlooking Ben Foakes' claims as wicketkeeper, while Bairstow - who will bat at No. 5 at The Oval - averages in the 20s? How many more opportunities will Jos Buttler be granted? Ironically, it will be another allrounder who gets the chance to restate his case, a year after being named Man of the Series against India, with Sam Curran coming in for a maiden Ashes appearance.
Root remains adamant about his ability to lead England, even as he juggles the demands of being the premier Test batsman, an automatic pick in ODIs and aspiring to further his T20 opportunities. "I have a clear direction of how I want to take this team forward and I'm fully focused on doing just that," he said. Root described himself as having "thrown everything into [the captaincy] and given absolutely everything I can" and it certainly looks like could do with a rest come the conclusion of the Oval Test. One thing that might help straighten out his Test game is a move back down to No. 4. Asked if he saw himself continuing at three he said, "I am going to this week." And in future? "We'll see."
Who comes after Bayliss?
It's not one that can be resolved this week, admittedly, but England's World Cup-winning coach has reached the end of his tenure, and the identity of his successor will be integral in how all of the above comes together.
When told that Bayliss himself had marked himself as a 5 out of 10 for his time as England coach, Root laughed and said he would give him a "slightly higher mark" than that, before praising his revamp of the limited-overs sides in particular and saying the Australian would be "sorely missed".
"I think that sums him up really," Root said, "quite a modest bloke, sort of wants to slip under the radar, doesn't like any fuss or attention and tries to put it back on the players. What he has done for all teams - he has been a part of some very special wins in Test matches, some series home and away which he should be extremely proud of as a coach, and then the way he has transformed white-ball cricket and been a part of that journey is incredible really.
"He has really rejuvenated how we look at the white-ball game in this country and laid some really solid foundations for us to kick on and develop. He has had a massive influence in his tenure here and he will be sorely missed by all the players that have had a chance to work with him."