Just how important is this match? The Ashes, after all, are gone with Australia’s retention sewn up at Old Trafford where they took a 2-1 lead. England can, however, still level the series up with a victory at The Oval even if they cannot reclaim the prize they came for. In any normal series, its unresolved nature would give this match huge significance. But with the destination of the Ashes already resolved, there is a strange dynamic to this match. Does it really matter?
Both teams will say it does, of course. Australia have made all the right noises about wanting to finish the series strongly. They have not won a five match rubber in England since 2001, a bit of history they are keen to put right. And a series victory would certainly add the icing on top of the cake for Tim Paine and his men. Retaining the Ashes while drawing the series doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as winning the Ashes by winning the series. The legend of England’s famous victory in Australia in 2010/11 would not be anywhere near as strong if they lost the final game at the SCG, for example.
For England’s part, they will be keen to keep Australia’s winless record here going, continuing a psychological hold that may be useful for the next Ashes series at home. They will also want to give Trevor Bayliss, their departing head coach, a winning send-off. But for this group of players, more than anything this game will be about fighting for their places. A number will be playing for their immediate Test careers. Some may never play another Test again. There is certainly plenty of personal motivation.
As there will be for some of the Australians. In the lead-up to the fifth Tests, their coach, Justin Langer, admitted that Steve Smith has dragged his team’s batting along on his coattails and for the likes of Travis Head, Marcus Harris and Matthew Wade, this match is important for their prospects too. David Warner, averaging less than ten for the series whilst becoming Stuart Broad’s bunny, also needs some runs but his class will be enough to ensure he remains part of Australia’s long-term plans. With Joe Denly, Jason Roy, Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow feeling the heat for England, the batsmen on both sides will have their minds sharpened.
There are also no less than 24 World Test Championship points up for grabs to the winner of this Test to keep things interesting. While the points system, with its unequal distribution of points per Test depending on how many matches there are in a series, needs review, this is the sort of game the ICC had in mind when putting the WTC in place. Rather than a simple dead rubber, the points on offer are designed to add interest and context, to keep intensity levels higher. As Joe Root said after defeat at Old Trafford, the points on offer at The Oval could be crucial come the business end of the WTC. It’s not the biggest factor surrounding this game but it is certainly one of them.
A drawn series is England’s objective this week then but Ashes series do not tend to be drawn. The last instance was back in 1972 when Australia, led by Ian Chappell, won the final Test at The Oval to salvage some pride after England had retained the Ashes in the previous match at Headingley. Australia then found themselves in the same position as England now. The Ashes gone but a series still alive. Chappell’s men were fuelled by an intense desire to win that match, to end an unsuccessful campaign on a positive note. Can Root’s team muster similar determination?
When: Thursday September 12, 2019. 11:00am UK time
Where: The Oval, London
What to expect: After James Anderson’s criticism of the surfaces prepared for this series, advocating greater assistance for England in future, it will be interesting to see how much grass is left on the pitch for this game. Indications are, however, that it will be a typical Oval surface: hard, true and good for batting even if there is likely to be something in it for the bowlers given the time of year. Remarkably for late September, however the forecast for the game looks good with no rain expected. Temperatures could even reach the mid-20s over the weekend. This really is a crazy world.
The home side are set to bring back Chris Woakes, unwisely dropped for the fourth Test, but the balance of the side is yet to be confirmed. Ben Stokes’ shoulder injury could mean that he plays as a specialist batsman only. If that is the case, one of the frontline batters will likely be dropped with England playing an extra all-rounder, either Sam Curran or Craig Overton. Jos Buttler, batting at seven at Old Trafford and averaging just 16 for the series, looks the most vulnerable of the batsmen.
Possible XI: Rory Burns, Joe Denly, Joe Root, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Chris Woakes, Sam Curran, Jofra Archer, Jack Leach, Stuart Broad
The rotation of Australia’s bowling attack could be set to continue with Peter Siddle and James Pattinson both a chance to come into the side. But who they might come in for, or if they do at all, remains to be seen. Given the excellence of Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood in Manchester, Mitchell Starc is the most likely to be left out if a change is made. Aside from the top six which played at Old Trafford, Usman Khawaja, dropped for Smith there, is the only other credible batting option but is likely to remain on the sidelines.
Possible XI: David Warner, Marcus Harris, Marnus Labuschange, Steve Smith, Travis Head, Matthew Wade, Tim Paine, Pat Cummins, James Pattinson, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood