More than a week has passed since The Greatest Test Ever veered and lurched its way to a conclusion that had to be seen to be believed, and the events of Headingley 2019 still feel just as surreal.
But this Ashes series, with five Tests in six-and-a-half weeks, waits for no man – as James Anderson has discovered to his cost. The spectacle of a great mid-series comeback, of England’s best bowler returning alongside Australia’s best batsman, has been quashed by Anderson’s troublesome calf, and Stuart Broad’s dream “that he would be back and open the bowling at the James Anderson End, and bowl us to victory” is destined never to become a reality.
Instead, it is Australia that go to Manchester with their key man returning. If Steven Smith’s absence due to concussion was not as keenly felt as Justin Langer might have initially feared at Headingley, the pace at which England managed to expose Australia’s weak underbelly of a lower-middle order was slowed only by a pair of battling fifties by Marnus Labuschagne, who proved as apt a like-for-like replacement as could have been hoped for.
Labuschagne’s reward will be a move back up the order to No. 3, where he batted at the SCG against India at the start of the year, while Usman Khawaja has paid the price for extending his poor record in England, as Smith slots back into the middle order. He is sure to be met with some hostility from Rajasthan Royals team-mate Jofra Archer, who said last week that there would be “more than ample time to get him out” in the series after Smith’s jibe that he was yet to do so.
With the best batsman in the world returning – and it’s now official again – Australia can remind themselves that they are still only one win away from retaining the urn, and remember that but for one of the great individual efforts in Test history, they would have done so already. The wounds opened up in England’s first-innings effort of 67 all out have been patched up with little more than a sticking plaster, and after plenty of time off to get “cherry ripe”, the seam attack will be raring to go.
The exact make-up of the bowling attack is yet to be confirmed, with Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc going head-to-head for the final spot, while Nathan Lyon has recovered from a niggling ankle injury and will be thrust back into the spotlight, no doubt with the added pressure of the Manchester crowd on his back after that fumbled run-out attempt in Leeds.
England, meanwhile, have stuck to their theory that their current batting line-up comprises “the best seven batters available to us at the moment” but have decided that Joe Denly – who is surely the only man to become a Test opener by improving his part-time legspin – should switch roles with Jason Roy. If there appears to be some logic to the move, with Roy less likely to be exposed against the moving ball, it should be remembered that Denly has not opened regularly in first-class cricket since 2015; that captain Joe Root has a substantially better record at four than a three; and that Roy’s most recent red-ball hundred came at number three.
With the ball, England have opted for a change, naming Craig Overton in their XI, with Chris Woakes paying the price for an expensive display in the first innings at Headingley. While Sam Curran had game-changing lower-order runs and a left-arm angle in his favour, Overton’s impressive County Championship form and Ashes experience made him a reasonably compelling alternative.
In truth, though, neither has been afforded an opportunity to stake much of a claim in recent months; that Australia’s back-up seamer Michael Neser has played more first-class games than both Curran and Overton in the past five weeks is a damning indictment on the county schedule’s suitability.
England WDLWW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
If Ben Stokes‘ World Cup feats meant that England were more than used to pinning their hopes on him, the burden will only have increased after his heroics at Headingley. Stokes’ record at Old Trafford is mediocre – he has one 50 in six first-class innings with an average of 29.33, and two Test wickets at 60 apiece there – but if we have learned anything from Stokes it is that his ability is reflected poorly by conventional statistics. With 258 runs for one dismissal in his last three innings, Stokes is bound to revert to more human numbers soon; England will be desperate for him to keep riding the wave for a few weeks more.
Only one Test into his Ashes career, Marcus Harris finds himself under pressure having kept his spot for Manchester despite an expectation that Khawaja would move up to open. In an alternative timeline, Harris would have been the hero after clinging on to a brilliant catch diving forward at third man to dismiss Stokes at Headingley, but instead needs to combat a perceived weakness against right-arm seamers from around the wicket. He was dismissed twice by Jasprit Bumrah and once by Mohammed Shami from that angle in his debut series, and fell to Archer from that angle in the third Test; expect England to keep on using that as Plan A against him.
Joe Root confirmed England’s XI on the eve of the Test, with Overton likely to slot in at No. 8 above Archer after replacing Woakes. Jos Buttler is set to continue at No. 7, below Stokes and Jonny Bairstow in England’s engine room.
England: 1 Rory Burns, 2 Joe Denly, 3 Joe Root (capt), 4 Jason Roy, 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 7 Jos Buttler, 8 Craig Overton, 9 Jofra Archer, 10 Stuart Broad, 11 Jack Leach.
Australia’s decision to leave Khawaja out of their side for Old Trafford raised a few eyebrows, not least with Matthew Wade keeping his place in the middle order. Tim Paine suggested a late decision would be made as to whether Starc or Siddle plays as the third seamer, but Starc is the favourite after spending the first three Tests on the periphery.
Australia: 1 David Warner, 2 Marcus Harris, 3 Marnus Labuschagne, 4 Steven Smith, 5 Travis Head, 6 Matthew Wade, 7 Tim Paine (capt & wk), 8 Pat Cummins, 9 Peter Siddle/Mitchell Starc, 10 Josh Hazlewood, 11 Nathan Lyon.
Pitch and conditions
The Old Trafford pitch looked a bit cracked and largely free of grass, suggesting it should be a good batting pitch, and certainly one that the winning captain would be expected to bat first on. It is sufficiently dry that the sides might have considered a second spinner in different circumstances, but with Australia only naming one spin bowler in their touring party, Moeen Ali out of form, and Adil Rashid injured, the Test will largely be dominated by seam.
The forecast is mixed for the five days, with conditions overcast at best for the most part. Friday in particular looks set to be threatened by rain.
Stats that matter
England last won an Ashes Test at Old Trafford in 1981, when Ian Botham hit a 102-ball 118 in a 103-run victory.
Seamers have outperformed spinners at Old Trafford in the past ten years, averaging 27.62 compared to 39.21.
No English ground has a higher scoring rate in Tests than Old Trafford in the last decade (3.46 runs per over).
David Warner averages 39.51 against right-arm seamers from around the wicket in Tests, compared to 58.63 over the wicket.
Craig Overton and Jack Leach have played together 48 times in first-class cricket for Somerset, winning 18 and losing only nine of those games.
“We’ve thought long and hard about our top order. I feel like we have the right players, but reshuffling it is going to be what really works for us and gets off to a strong start. Look at someone like Jason coming in lower down and the ability to play in his manner – more freely when it’s not doing as much – might give him a better chance.”
Joe Root, England’s captain, thinks changing the batting order will be the final piece in the jigsaw
“I thought the way our group engaged in that and were really honest with each other, and the way that guys who had to look at some pretty ordinary stuff copped it on the chin and realised that it’s coming from a good place and a place where we want everyone to really improve – I thought the group handled that really well, and we have learned some valuable lessons from the last Test match.”
Australia captain Tim Paine says the team are all the better for their Headingely post-mortem