Australia retain the Ashes, but can they close out the series?

The Manchester weather saved Australia and the Ashes have been retained again, albeit in underwhelming fashion. There will be an argument made that their wins in the first two Tests earned them the right to be in this position, but they go to The Oval needing a victory to be able to say with any conviction that they have been the better team. A drawn series would leave a lot of questions. Here’s some of the areas they need to consider before the final Test.

David Warner clinging on

Is two starts that aren’t converted more of an issue than falling cheaply twice, as David Warner did at Headingley? It remains a long shot that he will lose his spot in this series – the selectors have passed the point of no return in that regard – but it feels increasingly unlikely that he has a big finish in him for his Test career. That double-hundred against South Africa is looking even more of an outlier.

At Old Trafford it wasn’t Stuart Broad who did for him but Chris Woakes, in both innings. On the first day he edged behind (from over the wicket, rather than Broad’s round-the-wicket line) and on the third he was left in two minds whether to play or leave, dragging the ball into his stumps. If he has a lean Test at The Oval it will raise the prospect of Australia’s selectors making the decision to move on at the start of the home season against Pakistan, rather than waiting for the West Indies in January which was Warner’s stated retirement plan.

Todd Murphy’s value grows in his absence

The loss of Nathan Lyon midway through the Lord’s Test always felt as though it would be a huge blow for Australia and it has proved increasingly so by the day, although ultimately overcoming his absence in the latter part of the second Test has proved crucial. But surely Australia can’t go into another Test without a frontline spinner? Their attack at Old Trafford looked one-dimensional and Travis Head’s offspin was dispatched by England’s batters. That could have happened to Todd Murphy, too, but Australia will need to back their specialist spinner. So it’s a question of how he gets into the side.

Unless Mitchell Marsh, who has played three important innings out of his four knocks, is suffering from more than the stiffness which kept him off the field on the third day, it would appear Cameron Green is the most vulnerable after he struggled in the first innings before falling to a borderline lbw decision against Woakes. He is averaging 20.60 with the bat across this series and has been unable to find any fluency. However, the selectors are very keen to keep him in the side.

Australia’s big three chastened

Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins suffered a plundering at Old Trafford: 392 runs conceded between them at 5.22. They have not become bad bowlers, of course, and the same three could easily line up at The Oval, but it will be worth pondering if a different combination might be worth a go.

Perhaps the biggest question mark is around the workload on Cummins, who is the only quick to have played all five Tests so far on a tour that began with the World Test Championship final against India. From the beginning he made it clear he believed he could play all six, and it’s almost impossible to see the captain not featuring, but it could be pushing him to his limits.

Meanwhile, Starc brushed off a shoulder concern after landing heavily on the second day and Hazlewood bagged a five-wicket haul so none are easy to leave out. England have also dominated Scott Boland in this series so the selectors may be reluctant to bring him back. Michael Neser, who was added to the squad earlier in the tour, remains the one yet to be used and has an excellent record in county cricket – including, in recent weeks, with the bat.

Sitting back to Bazball

More broadly, perhaps it’s Australia’s tactics that need to come into focus. They set their stall out not to be dragged into playing England at their own game and they enter the final Test with the urn retained in this country for the second time in four years. Their approach was vindicated in the first two Tests, albeit by a very narrow margin at Edgbaston, but cracks have emerged and at Old Trafford they felt especially passive.

“Has Bazball spooked Australia?,” Jason Gillespie asked in his Mail on Sunday column. “A number of Australian players in interviews have insisted that they will play their way and they will focus on what they can do. But what we have seen is reactive plans to England’s style of play. We wouldn’t be seeing all these defensive fields and raucous bouncer plans if Australia simply focused on what they do well.”

The second day, as Zak Crawley plundered his 189, was by a distance Cummins’ toughest as captain. It doesn’t mean they have to copy what Ben Stokes and England are doing – they are the World Test Champions so their game in this format is in good order – but can they play a more proactive game in the final Test? The flip side they could offer, however, is that with a bit more batting composure at Headingley they could have been 3-0 up. Either way, the legacy this side wanted – to leave with a series victory in England – rests on the final Test.

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