Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 27 September 2020

England's Headingley hangover and Steve Smith's return: Key talking points ahead of fourth Ashes Test

With the series tied at 1-1 and the dust settling on a remarkable third Test, the two teams head to Old Trafford

It is stating the obvious to point out England will be riding to Old Trafford on a surge of optimism and goodwill, as they start their final push for the Ashes next week.

People are debating when exactly Ben Stokes should be knighted. Jack Leach has been offered glasses for life by Specsavers.

And Australia have got about as many clues as to their optimum opening partnership as they have how to use the Decision Review System.

Despite all that, the score remains 1-1 in the series with two to play. And the away side have the advantage of holding the urn, meaning a draw will be enough.

Headingley hangover

As England toiled through a tepid start to this series, in the heavy loss at Edgbaston, the theory went that they were still suffering from a World Cup hangover.

That tournament had been so emotionally draining that England were apparently struggling to get back up for the fight in the Ashes.

If that was the case, what will the response to Headingley be? Jofra Archer called it the most intense match he had ever been involved in, and he is as cool as a cucumber – so what about the rest of them? Surely, they will be frazzled.

But at least they have lined their stomachs ahead of the last push. Stokes and Co jumped in an Uber, headed to McDonald’s, and feasted on quarter-pounders to celebrate the win in the third Test.

Problems persist

The Stokes epic was the most spectacular way to apply a Band-Aid over England’s continually faltering batting.

If they opt not to change a winning team, they would be giving in to superstition, rather than pragmatism.

At the very least, they might want to rejig the order to switch Jason Roy, with 57 runs at 9.5 from six innings so far, and Joe Denly, who showed courage on Day 3 at Headingley.

Or perhaps Roy should drop out altogether and make way for his in-form Surrey colleague Ollie Pope.

Not that England are alone in facing problems like that. This series feels as though it is a contest to find which side has the least flawed batting line up. Neither are exactly excelling.

DRS

After Joel Wilson turned down Nathan Lyon’s late lbw appeal against Stokes, and thus breaking Australia on Sunday, Tim Paine strode towards him – it was time to change ends, anyway – asking: “What was that missing? What was that missing?”

It seemed passive aggressive – forgivably, maybe, given the situation. Or, he might literally have been asking for some pointers.

If Hawkeye is struggling to triangulate the trajectory of bowling at the moment - as Stokes later intimated, when he said the ball-tracking system was wrong on this one – then at least it is doing better than Paine.

Australia have failed to get any of the nine appeals they have sent to DRS while fielding overturned in the three Tests so far. Who knows how they will resolve that failing at Old Trafford.

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Top marks for Stokes, Tim in a world of Paine: Headingley Ashes Test player ratings

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Nathan Lyon

Hands up who felt sorry for Lyon when he botched the run out of Leach, the ball before that lbw controversy.

For many, his moment of horror was karma. Matt Prior quickly took to social media saying that “mother cricket” had bitten, hoping that a player well known for offering up choice verbal barbs “sleep well”.

Shane Warne bit straight back, saying there’s “no need for silly and immature behaviour”. “No need at all,” added Michael Vaughan, weirdly.

What a shemozzle. Headbutting that line which divides those playing within the Spirit of Cricket from those not always has been a fraught business.

Steve Smith

It is still only 1-1, and England need to win the series if they are to regain the urn, while their visitors only need a half.

Now the plot shifts again, with likely return to the fray of Steve Smith.

All Stokes’ heroics will count for nought if Smith comes back in and immediately plays like he did before the concussion that forced him out of the Headingley match.

He was straight back into the old routine after 16 months out of Test cricket before the first match. So it stands to reason that he should still feel like he knows what he’s doing if he does return to the crease in Manchester, after a hiatus of just a couple of weeks this time.

At least England will feel better equipped to dismiss the man who is averaging 126 in this series, with the emergence of Archer, his nemesis at Lord’s, and perhaps even the return of James Anderson after his calf injury.

Updated: August 27, 2019 04:09 PM

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