Buoyant Australia eyes series win after retaining the Ashes

Two-one up, Australia cannot lose the Ashes but with momentum on its side and having dealt England a psychological blow, Tim Paine and co. will push for a series win.

Will Australia end an 18-year wait for a Test series win on English soil?   -  Reuters

Australia heads to The Oval hungry to win its first Ashes series in England since 2001 as the peerless Steve Smith seeks to inflict further pain on the host.

Tim Paine’s men finally saw off stubborn England at Old Trafford on Sunday to take a 2-1 lead in the five-Test series with just one match to go, meaning they will retain the urn.

To stand any chance of levelling the series, Joe Root and co. will have to find a way to solve the riddle of the immovable Smith, who has scored 671 runs in just five innings at an astonishing average of more than 134.

The former captain, top of the international rankings, has been the pillar of the Australian batting line-up 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.

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Steve Smith has been the bedrock of the Australian batting line-up this Ashes.   -  Getty Images

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 its pace attack, with Josh Hazlewood and world number one Pat Cummins combining to take 42 wickets between them.

Australia coach Justin Langer, revelling in having the world’s top-ranked batsman and bowler at his disposal, is urging the other batsmen to step up in the match starting on Thursday, even though he admits they lack experience.

“You can’t just give them that experience, they have to earn that and we’re very thankful to have Steve batting,” he said. “I’ve never seen batting like that.

“You’ve still got to perform whether you’re young or you’re a veteran, but we also have to recognise they are young batsmen and it’s a really tough school and hopefully they’ll come through at some point.”

- Root challenge -

The England captain must inspire his troops to one last effort after a gruelling season in which England became the world champion in the 50-over format for the first time.

The Ashes failure 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.”

Read: Langer backs 'world class' Warner to come good

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 tourist's 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, with the exception of 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, Root will be relying on his new-ball pair 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.

-In Opta numbers-

- Australia comes into this game at The Oval having retained the Ashes for the first time since the 2002-03 series.

- The tourist is looking for a first away Test series success since February 2016.

- England will be striving to avoiits first Test series defeat on home soil since June 2014; that series loss coming against Sri Lanka (0-1).

- England has not suffered back-to-back home Test losses since South Africa won two in a row 11 years ago. It has only managed one victory in its last 10 Test contests with Australia.

- Australia has only claimed three wins in its last 18 attempts in Tests at The Oval, losing six and drawing nine. Its win at the London ground was in 2015.

- England has registered back-to-back Test victories at The Oval. It has not managed to record three on the bounce there since putting together a four-game winning run from 1966 to 1969.

- Stuart Broad has got David Warner out 11 times in Test cricket, the joint-most instances he's removed a batsman (level with Michael Clarke). He has dismissed Warner in six of his eight knocks in this series, at the price of only 32 runs.

 

(With inputs from PTI and Omnisport)