Yesterday’s preview that wasn’t a preview rather removed anything that’s not a preview from this preview. Or something.
Anyway, here we are, 1-1 in the series, a genuinely epic conclusion to the last Test match and everything to play for. England have replaced Woakes with Craig Overton, continuing the glorious English tradition of making a bowler pay the price for the failures of the batsmen to score enough runs. Woakes was used sufficiently sparingly in the last couple of Tests to cause speculation about him having an injury. That England insist he’s fit rather makes it worse – as it means Root didn’t bowl him through choice. Overton is clearly intended to come in and be the workhorse, which is all very well as long as he keeps it tight and looks mildly threatening sufficiently to allow Broad and Archer to not be ground into the dirt. Nice plan, let’s see if it happens.
The other change England are making is to swap the positions of Denly and Roy, a tacit admission that despite the insistence that being a white ball opening batsman is sufficient preparation and similarity of role for doing so in Test cricket, they’ve got it wrong. Who could possibly have seen that coming? Roy has plenty of talent, that much isn’t in doubt, but a refusal on the part of the selectors to accept the differences in the roles gave him little chance of succeeding. Whether he has the technique to bat at four is equally in doubt, but England’s insistence on defining attacking cricket as being able to smack the ball around in a limited overs contest means that short of an open admission that the selection was entirely wrong, this was likely the only change they could make. It looks a touch more stable at the top, albeit it now places Denly at a disadvantage, but his innings at Headingley did at least show he was more likely to last the first five overs than Roy. Denly’s innings in Leeds was needed for his own sake, and while he likely isn’t quite good enough for Test level (few are) he is at least approaching his innings with a desire to occupy the crease, something in perilously short supply in the England order
Australia have responded to their bowlers failure to defend 359 by dropping a batsman, which would be rather more amusing were it not for being an obvious necessity in order to bring the returning Smith back into the batting order. Khawaja is the unlucky one, and in his case it might be that he really is unlucky. He’s not shone this series, but nor has he been a particular failure either – he’s certainly looked the best of the top three to date – Australia’s reluctance to drop Marcus Harris after one game being the primary reason for sitting him out of this one. Marnus Labuschagne has taken his chance expertly enough, but there’s something a little strange about making Khawaja captain for the tour match and then dropping him for the Test.
Pattinson is rested for the fourth Test, presumably for Peter Siddle to return. Australia are in the pleasant position of having sufficient stocks of fast bowlers that Mitchell Starc still hasn’t appeared in the series, and few of the journalists are suggesting he will in this one. Maybe a surprise will happen.
Smith’s return does set up the prospect of he and Archer renewing hostilities, and there’s little doubt that England will look to target him with the short ball utilising Archer’s extra pace. Smith would be less than human if he weren’t a little apprehensive about that, but the bigger danger for England is in over-doing a tactic and forgetting that a good ball is a good ball, whoever it is bowled at. It will still be pure theatre when they face off against each other and he will be more than aware of what is coming.
As for the way the game will unfold, the return of Smith is undoubtedly a boost for Australia, but other than that not a huge amount has changed in terms of the weaknesses of both sides. The top orders still look exceptionally brittle, the middle orders still get exposed too early, the bowling attacks still look to be on top. But England are level in this series because of a completely outrageous performance from one player. They have looked second best in the series for the majority of the time, and relying on Stokes to pull off the ridiculous doesn’t seem a strategy likely to yield consistent results. Australia will certainly be wary of a player who can do that kind of thing, no matter what the match position, it’s just that it’s asking far too much for him to do it on more than an occasional basis.
Australia should be the favourites, both for this match and for the series, based on what we’ve seen so far. But England can certainly play better than they have, even with a flawed batting line up. They’ve had a lifeline, a hail Mary of a win – whether they can use that to raise their game collectively is a different matter. But a finish as good as the last one, that would indeed be welcome. Already, as is the wont of those who delight in the clickbait, some are suggesting this series could be as good as 2005. To put it mildly, the last two Tests would have to be extraordinary for that to be the case, even discounting the standard of the two sides in this one compared to 14 years ago. It’s silly, it’s always silly. But it carries on, for that is the journalistic world in which we now live. A decent game, that goes the distance, that’ll do here.
Comments, as ever, below.