After eight consecutive Ashes Tests without a win, England come to Headingley full of confidence, while Australia, who can retain the urn with one win in the next three, are on the ropes. Welcome to Test cricket in 2019, where conventional wisdom is inverted.
The mood around the respective teams owes much to two men. The first is Jofra Archer, the man Justin Langer had said Australia were planning to “keep wearing down, and get him back into his second or third and fourth spells,” before the second Test; in the event, Archer’s fifth spell in the first innings was the fastest of the Test, according to CricViz, and he ended not only with figures of 5 for 91 from his 44 overs, but having struck a psychological blow by striking both Steven Smith and Marnus Labuschagne with vicious bouncers.
The second is Smith himself, who will miss the Leeds Test after suffering a delayed concussion from that Archer blow. The debate will roll on as to whether he should have been allowed to come back out to bat, but the cold hard facts are that Australia will be without the man who has scored 35 percent of their runs off the bat this series, despite missing one of their innings. In his absence, Tim Paine will be desperate for David Warner (18 runs at 4.50) and Usman Khawaja (91 at 22.75) to step up, while Cameron Bancroft is surely one lean Test away from being dropped for Marcus Harris.
But for all the doom, Australia have plenty with which they can reassure themselves. Labuschagne impressed with a determined effort in the fourth innings at Lord’s after being floored by the first legitimate ball he faced and looking horribly scratchy in the immediate aftermath, while Travis Head has quietly enjoyed an excellent start to the series. And they have plenty of recent experience of playing without Smith – if they were unconvincing without him in the home series against India, they still only lost it 2-1.
Further, at a ground renowned for giving assistance to the seamers, their attack holds the edge over England’s. Pat Cummins is the leading wicket-taker in the series, and has given Jos Buttler in particular a torrid time: Cummins’ 59 balls to him have brought about the same number of scoring shots as dismissals (three each). James Pattinson is expected to replace Josh Hazlewood after being left out at Lord’s to ensure he was “cherry ripe”, while Peter Siddle has fond memories of Headingley after ripping through England there with 5 for 21 back in 2009.
Incidentally, that Test was the last in the Ashes in Leeds, and while England have won two of their last three games there by an innings, they have also lost six of their last ten at the ground dating back to 2008.
England, remember, have plenty of problems of their own. Trevor Bayliss admitted this week that Jason Roy – who has just 40 runs in four innings so far this series – “probably is suited to the middle order”, but it is expected that the attempt to turn him into a Virender Sehwag-style opener will continue this week. Joe Root failed in both innings at Lord’s, registering the first golden duck of his Test career in the second innings, and another difficult Test for him will surely result in a move back down the order.
Joe Denly, meanwhile, has reached double figures in every innings, but has failed to pass 30, let alone 50; he knows that with Ollie Pope fit again, and on standby as a concussion replacement after making a Championship double hundred this week, he can hardly afford another underwhelming showing.
The bowling attack is likely to be unchanged, though with Root’s captaincy under scrutiny after his perceived over-use of Archer last week Chris Woakes and Stuart Broad can expect to play bigger roles. Jack Leach has good memories of the ground after bowling Somerset to a Championship victory there in 2016 with 6 for 64, though spinners have averaged 34.87 at Tests in Leeds since 2014, compared to 30.94 for pace bowlers.
England DLWWL (last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Jos Buttler said in the build-up to the Lord’s Test that he was “not far” from his best form, but with 49 runs in the series so far, he is yet to show it. There were hints during his second-innings 31 – in which he shifted down to number six, below Ben Stokes – of the player that excelled with the bat against India last summer, but he has not looked his usual free-scoring self, and it is even possible that he will be moved back to number seven at Headingley, below Jonny Bairstow, as England attempt to take the pressure off him. If, alongside those two, he can return to his best, then England’s engine room will start to look formidable rather than fragile.
Smith has not only been Australia’s best batsman since returning from his ban, but also a constant presence in Tim Paine‘s ear when Australia have had decisions to make. While Paine will undoubtedly miss Smith’s runs, he might appreciate the lack of an assertive voice on the field, and relish the opportunity to be the side’s real leader again. Paine has been poor with the bat, repeatedly falling into England’s short-ball trap, and inopportune in his use of DRS thus far; with Alex Carey scoring twin fifties for Sussex this week, there is a growing sense that Paine must provide a reminder of what he brings to the side if he is to continue as captain for Australia’s home summer.
Despite Bayliss’ admission that Roy is probably better suited to the middle order, England are unlikely to make any changes to the order of their top four, and are expected to name an unchanged XI. Roy was hit on the helmet in the nets on Tuesday, and will be assessed once more before he is cleared to play. It seems likely he will still play, but his Surrey team-mate Ollie Pope is on standby if not, which would likely see Denly move up to open and Pope take his spot in the middle order. Stokes will continue at No. 5, while, Sam Curran‘s run carrying the drinks is expected to continue, though England will consider bringing him in for Chris Woakes.
England (probable): 1 Jason Roy, 2 Rory Burns, 3 Joe Root (capt), 4 Joe Denly, 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Jos Buttler, 7 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 8 Chris Woakes, 9 Jofra Archer, 10 Stuart Broad, 11 Jack Leach.
Despite an exceptional display of old-school line-and-length bowling in the first innings at Lord’s, Hazlewood is set to miss out, with Pattinson – now “cherry ripe” after his omission for the second Test – expected to replace him. That said, Paine suggested that Australia are yet to decide their XI, and it is possible that Siddle could be the man to miss out. Labuschagne will continue at No. 4 after his second-innings fifty, and Bancroft will likely be given another chance at the top of the order as Harris waits in the wings. It would have seemed improbable in the aftermath of his stellar World Cup that Mitchell Starc would not play any of the first three Tests, but it looks as though he will miss out again.
Australia (probable): 1 David Warner, 2 Cameron Bancroft, 3 Usman Khawaja, 4 Marnus Labuschagne, 5 Travis Head, 6 Matthew Wade, 7 Tim Paine (capt wk), 8 Pat Cummins, 9 James Pattinson, 10 Peter Siddle, 11 Nathan Lyon.
Pitch and conditions
Headingley’s reputation as an archetypal English ground is unlikely to change with this Test, as the pitch has some grass on it and should provide some level of assistance for the seamers. Since 2009, seamers have taken 246 wickets in Tests at the ground, compared to just 52 for spinners, though slow bowlers have enjoyed some level of success as games have worn on and wickets have deteriorated.
After rain threatened to wreck the second Test, this week should be much better. Light rain is forecast for the night before the game, and there will be plenty of cloud cover on the first two days, but the sun should manage to peek through by Saturday. There is barely a ticket going for the first four days, though there are plenty spare for day five on Monday.
Stats that matter
England have lost six of their last ten Tests at Headingley, and haven’t beaten Australia at the venue since 2001.
This will be the first Ashes Test in Leeds since 2009. Only one player from each side – Stuart Broad and Peter Siddle – will play in both.
This is only the second time in David Warner’s Test career that he has registered four consecutive single-figure scores.
Jason Roy averages 17.00 in three ODI innings at Headingley – his lowest ODI average at any English ground.
Not since 1997 has a side gone into a third Ashes Test winless and gone on to win the series.
“It changes a lot of batters’ approach towards our attack as well. It brings a number of the other guys more in the game, if you like, in a strange way. It is great to see him come into Test cricket and have such an impact. I’m sure he’ll make for some tasty viewing this Test match as well.”
Joe Root, England’s captain, is looking forward to letting Jofra Archer off the leash.
“You don’t sit and tell people how to bat, we’ve spoken about out processes as players, making sure you’re well planned and well prepared. That’s all you can do, when you go out in the middle it’s about watching the ball and reacting to it. We know going into this Test that we’re going to be very well prepared and very well planned. So that’s all you can do.”
Australia captain Tim Paine feels his side are ready to combat Archer’s threat.