And so, barely moments after the home international Test summer began, it’s nearly over. If anyone had said that the Oval Test will begin with nothing riding on it, it would hardly have been a surprise. That it is a dead rubber because England have already won, well that is more of a surprise.
And as a result, when the dust settled on the hammering handed out at Trent Bridge, the focus has been more on Australia than an England team justifiably enjoying the moment. It has been a peculiar and somewhat subdued build up.
Australia themselves will be saying goodbye to at least two players, in Rogers and Clarke. In reality, even though they are unlikely to play, Haddin and Watson can be added to that list, for it is hard to see how they will be selected again. There’s every chance Voges is playing his final match as well, while Shaun Marsh must be a considerable doubt for the future given he’s failed to take his chance at the highest level. Since Australia lost Ryan Harris before the series began, it amounts to a quite extraordinary end of an era for the Australian team. Of the squad of seventeen first chosen for the series, you can make a case that seven or even eight (depending on what future Fawad has) will be gone from the Test team by this time next week.
Moreover, Australia have lost little time in moving on, Smith has already been announced as the next captain, with Warner as his deputy – which is an interesting choice in itself given his brushes with authority over the last few years. It could be the making of him. Likewise, Smith has been talking about moving to number four in future, all of which suggests that Australia just want this over with and to move forward.
It’s a rather sad way for Clarke to finish. The last real link to the great Australian team of the noughties, he is going out with a whimper rather than a bang, captaining a side who have already moved on, in a series already lost, with a team comprised of many who will saying their own farewells. Sport can be a cruel business, and few get to time their departures perfectly. As both player and captain, there’s a temptation to believe that Clarke is more honoured abroad than he is at home, and a warm reception when he walks out to bat for the final two times is guaranteed. And thoroughly deserved.
For England, it is the chance to deliver four Test wins in a series against Australia for the first time since 1978, and in circumstances that few would have expected. Given England’s inconsistency, and the end-of-era nature of the Australian team, it’s as hard to call as any of the previous Tests. The series has been so unpredictable that it would be a brave person to make the call on what will happen this time. Perhaps what most fans of both sides would like more than anything would be a close match. There hasn’t been a truly close game between these sides since the Trent Bridge Test of 2013 – even the Oval last time which ended up tight was down to a contrivance more than genuine competition. That Oval Test incidentally was only the third time since five Test series became the norm that the Oval Test was a dead rubber in England’s favour. That this is the fourth instance one series later says a lot about recent series.
To that end, what does this say about England’s win? It’s fourteen years since Australia won in England, and in that time England are 10-3 up in Tests. Yet since England won that first series in years in 2005, England are 11-3 down in Australia. Each side is being well beaten away from home, with few close matches, that has to be a concern.
For England, there seems little point in risking Anderson – there would have been little point even if the series was on the line – so the debate surrounds the question of the pitch and whether a second spinner is needed. If so, then there is at least the possibility that Moeen could be moved up to open to create space for Adil Rashid. If that is how England go, then Lyth too could be facing the chop as far as his Test career is concerned. Lyth has hardly been a stellar success in this series, but then neither has his opening partner, one innings excepted. It would be a sour note were England to continue to go through openers not called Cook at a rate of knots. That is of course making the point before it even happens, and England may well retain Lyth to give him the chance to cement his place. A score of any sort would probably do that.
Of course, if Lyth does keep his place, then it seems hard to see how Rashid could be given the nod. Wood is troubled by his ankle, but the indications are that Plunkett is favoured if he doesn’t make it. There is of course no point selecting someone for the sake of it – that is what happened two years ago when Kerrigan and Woakes were called into the side and promptly discarded for the following series – more understandably in the case of Kerrigan, whose handling can still be questioned. Yet with the series in the UAE coming up, Rashid will certainly be required.
In all, this is a subdued build up to the final Test match. At the end of it, Alastair Cook will be presented with the urn, and all will be well with England cricket. Of course, the reality is some way from that, the previous 18 months has created a schism amongst cricket lovers like little seen in living memory. The win has papered over the cracks, but failed to resolve them. The ECB have a big job on their hands to re-create love for England, but if they do intend to try and do so, then this is no bad platform on which to build. It is now up to them.