England, the recent 50-over World Cup winners, will aim for some success again at home by levelling the Ashes 2019 series when they take on Australia in the fifth Test, starting on Thursday at The Oval in London. However, the hosts will have to find a way to tackle Australia’s leading scorer Steve Smith, who has accumulated 671 runs in just five innings. Holders Australia are 2-1 up in the five-match series as they won Test matches in Birmingham and Manchester but lost in Leeds. Under the captaincy of Tim Paine, Australia are eyeing their first Ashes series triumph in England since 2001.
Smith, top of the international rankings, has carried his team’s batting with three centuries and two fifties, including a double-century in the win in Manchester, with Marnus Labuschagne the only other batsman who has shown any consistency.
Smith, who returned to Test action in England after completing a 12-month ball-tampering ban, has made his mountain of runs despite missing three innings after he was felled by a Jofra Archer bouncer.
Given a full series, the freakish Smith might well have been even closer to Don Bradman’s mark of 974 runs for the most runs ever made in a Test series, set in 1930.
The other key factor for Australia has been the strength of their pace attack, with Josh Hazlewood and world number one Pat Cummins catching the eye with 42 wickets between them.
Joe Root must inspire his troops to one last effort after a gruelling season in which England became world champions in the 50-over format for the first time.
Their failure in the Ashes has prompted questions over the Yorkshireman’s position, but outgoing coach Trevor Bayliss is adamant the captain retains the support of the England hierarchy.
“He’s not come under question from anyone making any decisions,” Bayliss said. “He’s under no pressure at all.”
Speaking about Root’s form with the bat, Bayliss added: “Everyone goes through periods where they don’t score as many runs as they’d like. I think the Australian team have bowled pretty well to him.”
England talisman Ben Stokes was included in an unchanged 13-man squad but will be assessed to find out whether he is fit to bowl at the Oval.
The England vice-captain did not bowl in Australia’s second innings at Old Trafford following a right shoulder injury sustained in the tourists’ first innings.
If Stokes is unfit to bowl in London, he is expected to play as a specialist batsman, meaning either Sam Curran or Chris Woakes would come into the side and one of the struggling batsmen would make way, perhaps Jason Roy.
Stokes is England’s top-scorer in the series, with 354 runs and two centuries but, except for Rory Burns, the rest of the batsmen have struggled to build totals for the bowlers to defend.
In the continuing absence of the injured James Anderson, Joe Root will be relying on his new-ball pairing of Stuart Broad and Archer to do the damage.
But he will know that for every minute Smith is at the crease, any hopes of denying Australia a first series win in England for 18 years will recede.