“Sometimes you can only be as good as the players you’ve actually got in the team. We’re probably still looking for a number of players to make that XI as strong as it possibly can be," were England head coach Trevor Bayliss’ words on the eve of the fifth and final Ashes Test at the Oval starting on Thursday.
That was certainly a sign of changes being made ahead of the last Test, in which England would hope to level the series in light of the Ashes being retained by the visitors once again. Sam Curran, who was the player of the series in England’s comprehensive 4-1 win at home against India in 2018 will be making his first appearance of the series, while Chris Woakes will make a return to the team after not featuring in the Old Trafford Test. Jason Roy, who has struggled so far in the series has been dropped, along with Craig Overton.
Extra bowling cover certainly makes sense for England considering Ben Stokes will play as a specialist batsman after picking up a shoulder injury in the last Test, the efficacy of his bowling in doubt.
As far as Australia are concerned, the only change they have made to their 12-man squad is the inclusion of all-rounder Mitchell Marsh instead of batsman Travis Head. Coach Justin Langer admitted that Head was “disappointed” to be dropped, but said the team needs an “extra bowling (option) after a long series.”
The Test will be the last in which Trevor Bayliss will officially be the England coach, and if that wasn’t motivation enough aside from trying to level the series, there are 24 valuable points still on offer in the larger picture of the ICC World Test Championship. Even though the visiting captain will be lifting the urn regardless of the result at The Oval, there is still a lot at stake for the hosts.
The immediate threats in front of England are the number one Test bowler and batsman in the Australian ranks, with Pat Cummins and Steve Smith raising the bar in terms of what constitutes individual dominance in a series. Twenty four wickets for Cummins and an astonishing 671 runs for Smith, the duo have been symbolic of Australia’s dominance.
Yet, that does not tell the entire story, as the rest of the Australian batsmen barring Marnus Labuschagne haven’t really impressed. Langer’s “perform whether you’re young or you’re a veteran” statement while alluding to his batsmen indicates that he would rather not be so reliant on Smith to pile on the runs game after game. He is human after all.
Or is he? Had it not been for the three innings that Smith Missed, who knows how close he might have been to Bradman’s record of 974 runs in a Test series, set in 1930. Despite that, he is the highest run getter in the series. England would hope that the inclusion of Sam Curran can dent his chances of getting closer to that tally. Knowing the imperious form Smith is in, one wouldn’t put it past him to get there in just two innings.
England have batting problems of their own, while Joe Root’s captaincy has been questioned by those outside of the national set-up. But Bayliss has put those questions to rest, saying, “He’s not come under question from anyone making any decisions. He’s under no pressure at all.
“Everyone goes through periods where they don’t score as many runs as they’d like. I think the Australian team have bowled pretty well to him."
It’s not like England haven’t had performers in the series. Jofra Archer has been a revelation, and bowling at an extremely high level, taking Stokes’ freak knock at Lord’s which temporarily ensured they remained in the series was magical to say the least, and the highest run-getter for England in the series with 354 runs would hope he has enough in his tank to deliver a match-winning performance once again, even with a shoulder handicap.
If he doesn’t, however, there isn’t much that will then be stopping the Australians from securing their first away Ashes series win since 2001.