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Ashes

Beware the wounded animal: Can Australia claw back ‘stolen’ Ashes?

Rich Evans by Rich Evans
@Rich_Wisden 5 minute read

Rich Evans previews the fourth Ashes Test at Old Trafford, where a bloody, potentially series-defining heavyweight duel between Jofra Archer and Steve Smith will reignite.

You don’t need a metal detector to unearth a golden quote from Justin Langer, and he didn’t disappoint ahead of the fourth Ashes Test in Manchester, as Australia’s floored fighters attempt to snatch the one victory they need to retain the urn.

“Think about Muhammad Ali getting his bike stolen (as a child),” he said. “He got his bike stolen and that was the fire he needed to become the greatest boxer of all time. We felt a bit like we got the Ashes stolen the other day. Now we’ve got to work out what we’re going to do – and use that as fire.

“The great players and great teams – in business and life – they have their ups and downs but they always fight back from it. You wouldn’t see one champion player, one champion team, one champion business that hasn’t done that.”

Ben Stokes secured an epic England victory in Leeds to make it 1-1 in the series

The Australia coach had earlier told his homeland’s media that England’s Ben Stokes-inspired Headingley heroics had left him “physically sick” and unsure whether to “cry my eyes out or smash my hotel room”.

Such a downbeat ending for the tourists at Headingley has led to some tinkering ahead of the fourth chapter. Usman Khawaja, who made 72 against Derbyshire in last week’s tour match, has made way for the returning Steve Smith, who sat out the Leeds clash after a blow to the neck from Jofra Archer. His concussion substitute at Lord’s and subsequent replacement in Yorkshire, Marnus Labuschagne, has retained his place after his three intervening innings yielded 213 runs at 71.00. Likely to bat at first drop, further tests will come. Mitchell Marsh failed to make the cut despite the all-rounder scoring 74 and taking three wickets in Derby.

The key battle: Jofra Archer versus Steve Smith

Stuart Broad turned up the heat yesterday, insisting that young quick Archer is gunning for Smith’s wicket: “I know when Steve Smith walks to the crease, Jofra will be walking to [captain] Joe Root saying: ‘Give me that ball,” he told BBC Sport. “I’m going to be a very interested viewer from mid-on because they’re two world-class players going against each other, with a little bit of verbal niggle going around as well.”

It takes a lot to floor Smith, and even more to keep him down. Langer is optimistic that his premier batsman, who has just replaced Virat Kohli at the top spot on the ICC Test batting rankings, will return with aplomb: “He works the game out better than anyone I’ve ever met in my life … If anyone’s going to get over any little demons it’ll be Steven.”

Mitchell Starc, who claimed seven wickets against Derbyshire, has replaced fellow speedster James Pattinson in Australia’s 12-man squad, but it remains to be seen whether he can displace incumbents Peter Siddle, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins.

While Cummins’ fatigue level will be considered, the age and form of Peter Siddle – five wickets at 36.40 – makes him the most vulnerable. Woakes, Broad and Cummins are the only front-line pacemen who have played all three Tests, but it would be a big call for the Aussies to rest the series’ top wicket-taker, with 17 scalps at 18.52. Hazelwood also averages 18 – from two games – and looks set to play.

England have resisted the opportunity to keep faith with a winning XI, with Somerset’s Craig Overton replacing Woakes. It’s been unclear whether the Warwickshire man’s dearth of overs is down to body management or his skipper simply preferring other options in tight situations or both. Sam Curran may feel despondent that he wasn’t next in line, with the England management uncertain of the precise role the enterprising all-rounder can occupy.

Joe Denly and Jason Roy will also trade places, with the Kent man joining Rory Burns at the top with the Surrey aggressor coming in at four. A logical re-jig, perhaps, but not one that feels like a long-term solution, and an odd reward for Denly’s  vital half-century in England’s second innings at Headingley,

Prior to Headingley, England coach Trevor Bayliss conceded that Roy (57 runs at 9.50) was not a Test opener but a potentially game-changing middle-order powerhouse – hardly England’s problem area. He was doing a job, taking one for the team. But more pressure will be heaped on Denly (147 runs at 24.50), who himself is yet to fire despite showing promise in Leeds, while the Root experiment at No.3 is yet to yield conclusive results, starved of adequate protection from above.

One does feel, however, that Root’s output of 176 runs from six innings at 29.33 would surely have been augmented if either the openers had combated early pressure or he had remained in his favoured No.4 slot – the position where Smith and Kohli lord it from.

The skipper has so far failed to get the best out of himself; a return to form could swing the balance of power in England’s favour, and enhance the possibility of rounding off what’s already been a euphoric summer for English cricket. Standing in his way, however, is the returning Smith. He may not toss the coin, but he is very much the leader of the aggrieved, who are desperate to banish the memory of their Headingley tragedy.

Archer v Smith is the heavyweight clash that looks set to define the series. As Smith retorted last week, “he hasn’t actually got me out,” but Broad, for one, can’t wait to be ringside: “I’m going to be a very interested viewer from mid-on because they’re two world-class players going against each other, with a little bit of verbal niggle. That’s what Ashes cricket is about – the theatre, the excitement, the enjoyment.”

Forecast

The weather in Manchester is a bit up and down – a mixture of light drizzle and sunny spells – but nothing overly threatening as things stand.

Likely XIs

England (confirmed): Rory Burns, Joe Denly, Joe Root, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler, Craig Overton, Jofra Archer, Stuart Broad, Jack Leach.

Australia (probable): David Warner, Marcus Harris, Marnus Labuschagne, Steven Smith, Travis Head, Matthew Wade, Tim Paine (c/wk), Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Nathan Lyon.

Betfair Exchange tips

After tipping up Australia at a chunky 3.35 on these pages last time, we thought we were quids in, but Ben Stokes put paid to that.

Picking a winner between these two sides ahead of the Test appears to be a bit of a lottery – if you want to have a flutter on the match odds, the advice would be to wait and trade the game in-running as prices fluctuate. You could have got 35/1 on England on the last day at Headingley!

We’ll turn our attention to the top batsman markets instead where the traders on the Betfair Sportsbook have boosted the irrepressible Ben Stokes from 4/1 to 5/1 to top-score for England in the first innings.

While England’s Headingley saviour is inevitably a shorter price in this market than he was at the start of the series, the 5/1 still offers value based on how many times he has delivered in this market in recent years.

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