With the Ashes remaining in Australia, there was still more than pride to play for in the final Test of the summer at The Oval; for the tourists, there was a chance to win a series in England for the first time since 2001, while for Joe Root’s England a victory would at least mean that honours were even.
Tim Paine won the toss and chose to field first, an approach that had worked just three times in 101 previous Tests on this ground. He made two changes to his line-up, bringing in Mitchell Marsh for Travis Head, giving him a fifth bowling option, which would help counteract any fatigue among his regular bowling stalwarts, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon. His other change was to recall Peter Siddle for Mitchell Starc, with conditions deemed to favour the veteran seamer.
For England there were also two changes. Jason Roy, unsurprisingly, was taken out of the firing line and replaced by Sam Curran, who was making his first Ashes appearance and was probably as likely to score as many runs in the lower order as Roy has been up top as well as bringing his left-arm swing bowling into the mix on his home ground. As England’s player of the series last summer, some wondered why he had been absent for so long. Chris Woakes returned in place of Craig Overton, who hadn’t done enough at Old Trafford with the ball, despite his rearguard heroics with the bat.
England’s openers Rory Burns and Joe Denly battled it out for almost 40 minutes before the latter edged one to Steve Smith off Cummins. With 20 minutes to go till lunch, England had not lost any more wickets, and then Root was reprieved when Siddle dropped a regulation chance at fine leg; ten minutes later he was dropped again, a sharper chance to Paine, and England got to lunch on 86 for one – a really positive start. Straight after the break, Root was dropped for a third time, and he was still on only 30. Almost immediately after, he went past 7000 Test runs, just ahead of Don Bradman (6996) on the all-time list. Burns fell for 47 after mistiming a pull off Hazlewood to leave England on 103 for two – he has been the one top-order England batsman who has really enhanced his reputation during the Ashes.
Stokes, playing purely as a batsman because of his sore shoulder, came in at four and fell in a similar way to Burns, with a top-edge pull, for 20 as Marsh struck. By tea, Root had reached another half-century and England were 169 for three and well placed. In the evening session, the momentum suddenly shifted and Cummins bowled Root for 57. An inswinging yorker from Marsh accounted for Bairstow, LBW for 22. Cummins repeated the treatment on Curran, only for him to be reprieved by a no ball. But Curran didn’t make the most of it, slashing Marsh to the slips on 15. Another Marsh yorker removed Woakes and Jofra Archer edged to Paine off Hazlewood and England were in trouble on 226 for eight.
As so often when things have gone well for England this series, Jack Leach was there as things turned back in their favour, playing his mild-mannered superhero role, while Jos Buttler got on with the real action – Leach really seems to bring out the best in his partners, either as a batsman or as a bowler. Buttler reached fifty with his third six as excitement mounted. A glacial over-rate meant Australia managed just 82 overs in the day, despite the extra half hour, and the day ended with the score on 271 for eight, with honours almost even.
England didn’t last too long on the second morning. Buttler fell for 70 and Leach was last man out for 21, another wicket for Marsh, whose figures of five for 46 were the best of his career. England’s total of 294 was a reasonable enough one, but would it be sufficient? UltraEdge came to England’s help as Archer removed the out-of-form David Warner for 5. But if he was unfortunate, then Marnus Labuschagne was lucky not to be strangled down the leg side, a clearer edge not picked up by the fielding side.
Meanwhile, Marcus Harris was having a tough time against Archer, and after a series of edges failed to carry, one finally did to Stokes and he was out for 3: 14 for two. Smith and Labuschagne have been Australia’s two best batsmen all series, and Curran offered something they weren’t used to. For once, Smith looked uncomfortable, but they got through to lunch on 55 for two.
Archer struck again to remove Labuschagne for 48 to open up an end, and then Curran got a deserved wicket, with Matthew Wade out for 19. Smith continued to operate on a different level, going to his fifty with a six off Leach – his tenth consecutive Ashes half-century, extending his record. There were no more wickets in the afternoon session, as the match continued in the balance at tea, with Australia on 147 for four, but until Smith was out England knew they could not rest.
Marsh soon pulled a short one from Archer down to Leach at fine leg, to leave Australia 160 for five. Then came that rarity: a chance from Smith, on 66, who slashed at a wide one from Curran that flew high to Root at slip, but he could not hold on. How costly would it prove? Curran was rewarded when Paine edged to the keeper for 1 and then next ball he had Cummins LBW with one that straightened up: 166 for seven.
Then, just after Smith had gone past 750 runs in the series – only the fifth time that a batsman has reached that total in four or fewer Tests, following Viv Richards (829 runs in 1976 against England), Sunil Gavaskar (774 v West Indies in 1970-71), Smith himself (769 v India in 2014-15) and Graham Gooch (752 in three Tests v India in 1990) – he was out for 80, his lowest score of the series. Woakes was the man who got him, as for once Smith missed one as he moved across his stumps and the ball cannoned into his pads. On 187 for eight, there was a real opportunity for England to take a hefty lead into the second innings.
There was a flurry of shots from Siddle and Lyon, including a mistimed hook by the latter that was dropped by Leach off Archer, before Archer removed Lyon with a brilliant slower-ball yorker after they had added 37. It was his second five-wicket haul of the series. It seemed Root had dropped another off Archer, though the ball had actually come off Hazlewood’s grille, before Burns took a stunning catch off Siddle at full stretch in the slips just inches off the ground to give Archer final figures of six for 62. All England’s wicket-takers – Archer, Curran and Woakes – had six letters in their surnames, which can’t have happened too often! Australia, all out for 225, trailed by 69 runs, but they had a brief spell at England’s openers to see if they could pick up a wicket. They had a chance, but Harris spilled a regulation chance in the slips, and England got to the close on 9 without loss, despite a last-ball LBW appeal that was only overturned on review.
On the third morning, England’s openers set a new series record for the first wicket, putting on the first fifty partnership of the summer. Then Burns edged behind off Lyon for 20 with the score on 54. Denly, having celebrated the birth of his baby during the match, was soon after hit in a, er, delicate area by Cummins but battled on. Root edged Lyon to slip just before lunch, by which stage England were 88 for two.
After lunch, Australia continued to struggle in the field and a chance to review an appeal for LBW for Denly was turned down, but shouldn’t have been, as Australia’s poor use of DRS also continued. Just before tea, with both Denly and Stokes past fifty, England’s lead went past 250, with eight wickets still in hand – they appeared in complete control, while their opponents looked tired. For the first time in the series, England had gone a session without losing a wicket and went in on 193 for two, with the third-wicket partnership already past a hundred.
Then, just as England seemed set to take complete control, Australia hit back. Stokes was bowled for 67 by Lyon with a lovely ball that turned, beat the outside edge and clipped off stump, then Denly was out for a career-best 94 as Siddle found the edge, and England went from 214 for two to 222 for four. Bairstow’s moderate series was brought to a conclusion after he made 14. Buttler’s own moderate series could also have been finished soon after, when on 19, had Paine chosen to review one off Lyon. Given how close to it he was, it was an extraordinary mistake – and not his first with DRS.
The new ball was taken immediately it was available, and Cummins struck quickly, strangling Curran down the leg side. With the lead 374 and threatening to go well over 400, Australia picked up two in two balls thanks to two brilliant catches. First up, Woakes was caught in the slips by Smith diving full length to his right off Marsh (his fourth catch of the innings) – it has been a summer of amazing fielding – and then Buttler, who had played some glorious shots, was out for 47 as Labuschagne dived forward in the deep to earn Siddle another wicket. By the close, England were 313 for eight, and in complete charge, but hoping to add a few more runs.
Cummins struck again on the fourth morning, setting an obscure record when he had Archer caught – it took him to 29 wickets for the series, the most taken by any bowler in without ever taking five in an innings. Broad made 12 not out, thanks to two sixes, before Leach skied one off Lyon and England were all out for 329, giving Australia a target of 399 to win, a total they had achieved to win only once in history – back in 1948, when they had a certain Don Bradman in their side. Could his modern equivalent, Smith, do the almost impossible?
The opening pair put on 18 – Australia’s highest of the series – before Broad (who else?) sent Harris’s off stump flying. It was his 20th wicket of the series, the fourth time in his career he has taken 20+ wickets in an Ashes series – an England record, but equalling three Australian bowlers, with Shane Warne ahead of him, having done it six times. This series has seen the lowest-ever average for the first wicket in a five-Test series, so dominant have the bowlers been, and so poor the batsmen.
It didn’t end there: Warner was out for 11, falling to Broad for a record-equalling seventh time in the series. His aggregate of 95 runs was a record low for an opener in a five-match series. Once again, Labuschagne and Smith were batting while the opening bowlers were still in their first spell. A brilliant take from Bairstow accounted for the former, who was stumped off Leach and Australia were 56 for three, and already you sensed there would be no miracle run case. They got to 68 for three by lunch.
Then, early in the afternoon, Broad had Smith fending him off his hip and steering it to Stokes at leg slip, who took a fine catch. He was out for 23, and now surely England would win, with the score on 85 for four. His 774 runs in four matches equalled Gavaskar’s total, with only Viv Richards ever scoring more. But someone forgot to tell Wade it was a lost cause. Woakes should have had Marsh out for 6, but had just overstepped, so he was reprieved until Root had him caught at short leg: 148 for five.
Wade and Paine played a few shots, before Paine was LBW to Leach. Wade went on to complete a spiky century, before Cummins was caught behind off Broad. Finally, Root (who’d had one dropped and another ‘caught’, only to be overturned on review) had Wade stumped for 117. Root then took two catches off Leach to complete the win, as Australia were all out for 263, beaten by 135 runs. Curiously, in England’s first innings, it was Archer, Curran and Woakes who took all the wickets, while in the second innings it was Broad, Leach and Root. This was the first time in Test history this had happened.
A final series result of 2-2 was probably about right, with Smith the standout Player of the Series, and Stokes chosen as England’s Man of the Series. Thoughts will soon turn to who should be picked for England’s winter series, with plenty of queries as to who should play at the top of the order, who should be the keeper/batsman, how can you fit Anderson, Archer and Broad in the same side, along with Curran/Woakes and Leach/Ali? But that will be a matter of debate – for now we should just be thankful to have enjoyed such a compelling summer of cricket.