Cricket Sport

Four talking points ahead of Old Trafford

The Urn - Cricket's most prized possession (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

by George Willoughby

At Headingley, Ben Stokes and Jack Leach pioneered one of the most extraordinary fight-backs in Test Match history. After Stuart Broad was trapped LBW by James Pattinson, the game was seemingly coming to an inevitable end – with England still requiring a further 73 runs with just one wicket to spare.

It was only a few weeks ago where we saw Stokes engineer another spectacular run-chase in the World Cup final, but this demonstration of physical and mental strength truly showcased why he is one of the best multi-format players in cricket.

It was a perfect display of finesse, power-hitting and game management. Huge credit also has to go to number eleven Jack Leach whose one run off 17 deliveries showed great poise and concentration against an Australian bowling attack that had previously dismantled England for just 67.

There is plenty to discuss ahead of the fourth Ashes Test at Old Trafford with the series levelled at one-a-piece.

Here are four main talking points leading into the Test:

England’s victory should not overshadow batting deficiencies 

As it stands, the Ashes is tied, yet England have been far from convincing. Outclassed at Edgbaston, and for large parts at Headingley, second-best.

Concerns with the opening batters have only exacerbated with Jason Roy struggling for runs, and Rory Burns who after a promising start, has looked extremely vulnerable to the short ball.

Simply put, the shot selection in first innings of that third Test was nothing short of abysmal. Australia were relentless in their lines and lengths, but on too many occasions, the England batters were chasing balls outside off-stump.

All bar one dismissal was caught, highlighting England’s intent on wanting to play at every ball.

Thankfully, in the second innings Joe Denly, Joe Root and Johnny Bairstow showed some calmness and patiently crafted useful knocks. This has to be the focal point moving forward with the bat otherwise England will continue to be bowled out in a days play.

Australia have been bowling in a traditional English style and it has paid dividends. The openers Roy and Burns have to play the new ball better and must work on their defence. This includes leaving the ball which is a skill that the most successful Test match batsmen have in their arsenal.

England have made a tactical change to the batting order with Joe Denly moving up to opener and Jason Roy slotting in at four. This alteration did not come as a surprise with Roy finding it difficult facing the new ball. The Surrey batsman is averaging just nine in the first three matches, so the change was forthcoming. On the other hand, Denly has looked assured at the crease but has been unable to convert the starts he has had into big scores. He played well in the third Test for his 50 which has earned him this shot.

New plans for Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne 

Another talking point ahead of the fourth Ashes Test is if England can develop a plan to dismiss Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith if he is to return to the side.

Labuschagne has showcased terrific application, concentration and mental toughness at the crease – especially in the way he responded from being hit by a short ball from Jofra Archer at Edgbaston. The 25-year old has been fantastic since coming in for the injured Steve Smith.

What has been eluded too, by many cricket analysts, is how well Labuschagne has left the ball. In his two innings at Headingley, he was able to leave around 30% of the deliveries he faced.

Labuschagne has been able to stay away from deliveries which, in similar areas, have dismissed England batsman. He can avoid good balls which results in him being able to rotate the strike when the England bowlers miss their lines and lengths.

Ahead of the Test at Old Trafford, England must devise a plan to try and get Marnus Labuschagne playing more deliveries. It became all too comfortable for the right-handed batsman to pace his innings without taking any risks. The most impressive aspect to the young batsmen’s game was that he was leaving balls solely on length.

On many instances, the current Glamorgan County player was able to watch deliveries pass over the wickets. Not even the pace of Archer or the accuracy of Broad was able to stop Labuschagne from scoring back-to-back half-centuries in the third Ashes Test at Headingley.

Formulating a strategy to try and stop Labuschagne from scoring runs is just one important challenge for the England bowling unit. Steve Smith, who was also struck in the head by Jofra Archer at Edgbaston, was forced to miss out through the concussion protocol.

Whether he features in the fourth Test is still to be decided by the Australian medical team, but if he is to return to the side, this Australian batting line-up will be significantly stronger.

Smith, who already has three centuries in the series, has looked phenomenal.

His unorthodox approach must be so unsettling for bowlers because of the way he can manoeuvre his feet to create angles for him to score with limited risk.

Much like Labuschagne, Steve Smith has left the ball brilliantly. Lateral movement was always a weakness for Smith, much like several other overseas players in English conditions. It is imperative to play the line of the ball and not to try and predict the movement, and this is what Smith has done very well.

Steve Smith’s lowest score so far in the Ashes is 92. If England are to stand any chance of reclaiming the cherished urn, they must take away Smith’s scoring shots or find any particular weakness in his finely tuned game.

Whilst Australia have similar problems with their opening partnership, having Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne coming in after must fill the dressing room with confidence. Dismissing these two players early will be one of the most pivotal obstacles for England to overcome.

The brilliance of Ben Stokes 

Just when we thought Ben Stokes could not produce a better batting performance than what we saw at the World Cup, he surpassed himself with a truly unbelievable match-winning century.

England had stumbled to 286/9 needing a further 73 runs for victory with only one wicket remaining.

Ben Stokes’ unbeaten 135 will go down as one of the best Test Match innings ever – very much reminiscent of Sir Ian Botham’s batting display with Graham Dilly. The left-handed bat not only saved The Ashes but also swung the momentum right into England’s favour going into Old Trafford.

What stood out in the hundred was his scoring pace and adaptability. He was well aware that on day three, England could not afford to lose another wicket. He subsequently found himself with just two runs after 66 deliveries.

Yes, he would have liked to have scored some more runs in this passage of play, but not surrendering his wicket at that stage of the game was just as important as the way he accelerated on day four.

With Ben Stokes, England know that whatever the game situation, if he is still at the crease they always have a chance of winning the game.

Also, Stokes was excellent with the ball in Australia’s second innings. He set the precedent with a relentless spell of pace bowling. Stokes found his rhythm and was able to trouble the Australian batsmen when the rest of England bowlers had looked relatively ineffective. Ideally, Joe Root would have preferred Stokes not to have bowled 24 overs in one innings, but he was comfortably the best option and it was the right decision with Stokes picking up 3 for 56.

At Old Trafford, Stokes will continue to have a big influence with the bat, ball and the field. He is England’s form player and he cannot seem to do anything wrong this summer.

The response from the Australian bowling attack

So far, throughout The Ashes, Australia’s bowling unit has been superb. The selectors have persisted with only choosing four recognisable bowlers and have rotated the pace options of Peter Siddle, Pat Cummings, Josh Hazlewood and James Pattinson.

What has been noticeable is the traditional English lines and lengths the Australian bowlers have been sticking too. They have been bringing the England batsman forward which has provided plenty of catching opportunities via the edge.

To be successful in English conditions making the batsman play is imperative. The Duke ball is very different from that of the Kookaburra because of the way it moves in the air and the deviation off the pitch. Without a doubt, the Australian bowlers have been great in maintaining the game plan – evident by the fact that they have bowled England out for under 150 twice already.

Australia has always excelled in putting in place the necessary strategies for English batsman. One of the best examples of this is the way they have responded to Rory Burns’ early success. After averaging 65 in his first three innings, Australia were proactive and have attacked Burns with more short deliveries.

As a result, the left-handed opening batsman is now averaging just 15 in his last three appearances with the bat. This shows the attention to detail the Australian bowlers and staff have when it comes to finding a flaw in the opposition batsmen. This is ultimately why they are ranked as one of the world’s best bowling units.

However, even with their success, the Australian bowlers are going to have to recover from a demoralising defeat at Headingley. After an incredible display of pace bowling to restrict England to just 67 in the first innings, they were unable to defend a formidable target of 359.

This was the first time the Australian bowlers strayed away from their game plans and they paid the biggest price.

Australian captain Tim Paine would have been very frustrated with his players, in particular, the way they approached trying to dismiss Jack Leach. Granted, Ben Stokes was able to face the bulk of the deliveries towards the end of the match, but they had 17 opportunities to try and dismiss the number 11.

Leach, who has yet to reach double figures in first-class cricket this season, was not challenged enough as he easily evaded short balls and defended comfortably.

It came as a big surprise that the Australian bowlers were not able to finish the game given how ruthless they had been in previous sessions. They had done everything to be in the best possible position to win the game, but when Josh Hazlewood was dismantled for 19 runs off one over, you could tell the Australian bowlers were tiring and their execution suffered because of it.

Make no mistake, this was a crushing blow not just for the Australian bowlers, but for the entire Australian team. They were one wicket away from retaining the Ashes, and now they face a rejuvenated England side who will be itching to get back out on the field after the events from Headingley.

This Australian bowling attack is one of the best in world cricket so you have to expect a strong response. It will be a great test of their mentality and character travelling to a synonymously hostile environment at Old Trafford.

What is worth considering, is that Australia does not need to alter their approach all that much. If they return to the areas where they were finding success, then they are going to cause the English batsmen plenty of problems.

It will be interesting to see if any changes are made to this bowling attack as Mitchell Starc provides a very valuable alternative with his game-changing speed. The slight concern is his control and whether Tim Paine is willing to surrender runs for wickets because with Starc’s speed comes substantial risk.

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