Key issues facing England and Australia ahead of the fourth Test
England sparked the men’s Ashes back into life at Headingley, claiming a three-wicket win that leaves them 2-1 down with two Tests to play.
Here, the PA news agency looks at how the series is set and the key issues affecting each side.
How important was England’s win in the third Test?
After losing narrowly at Edgbaston and Lord’s, it was do or die in Leeds. By getting over the line they stopped the Australian juggernaut in its tracks and kept the intrigue of a gripping series burning. England have played some compelling cricket but would have found it hard to talk their way out of a 3-0 scoreline that would have ended their hopes of regaining the urn. Now the country’s cricket fans can enjoy another week of hype and expectation.
Who has the momentum?
Ever since Jonny Bairstow’s controversial stumping on the final day at Lord’s, England have played their cricket with greater edge and steel. They may not admit it, but the controversial incident appeared to awaken an extra level of competitive edge that had yet to surface. Deep down, the tourists may already be regretting riling up their opponents with an opportunistic dismissal that raised their hackles. But when it was put to Australia captain Pat Cummins that England may have the elusive ‘momentum’ he rejected the notion, explaining his position in the simplest terms: by reciting the series scoreline.
Have England belatedly found their best XI?
Both Chris Woakes and Mark Wood had to wait for their chance to make an impression this summer, but the pair made up for lost time at Headingley. They shared 13 of the 20 Australia wickets to fall, with Wood’s raw pace and Woakes’ reliability elevating the attack to its best performance yet. They then saw their side home with bat on day four and it is already hard to imagine either man making way at Emirates Old Trafford or The Kia Oval. One change does look certain for the fourth Test, with record wicket-taker James Anderson all but guaranteed his place at his home ground and Ollie Robinson in line for a rest following his fitness issues last week.
Will Bairstow keep the gloves?
England made a tough selection call at the start of the campaign when they axed Ben Foakes, a man they repeatedly trumpeted as the best wicketkeeper in the world, to make room for the returning Bairstow. The Yorkshireman was the standout player of last year’s ‘Bazball’ bonanza but his return behind the stumps has been troubling. He has put down seven catches and a stumping so far, with his movement behind the stumps apparently affected by the horror leg-break that forced him out of the game for nine months. But there is nothing in the mood music to suggest England are about to make a U-turn on Foakes and ditch a player with Bairstow’s seniority. It is clearly a gamble, but one they seem committed to.
How fit is Ben Stokes
The England captain is very clearly, very visibly close to breaking point. He was desperate to play as an all-action all-rounder but has chipped in just 29 overs across six innings and did not bowl at all at Headingley. Even batting is putting him through the ringer due to his longstanding left knee problem. Watching Stokes grimace, wince and hobble his way through an innings has become par for the course but he has somehow retained his effectiveness and is the second highest run-scorer on either side. Stokes may well require a long break soon, but while the Ashes is alive he is surely going nowhere.
What does Old Trafford hold
First and foremost, England will be hoping for another sporty pitch with enough pace, carry and sideways movement to keep their bowlers interested. The Lancashire ground staff have typically done a good job of delivering surfaces that fit the bill and the home side rounded up South Africa cheaply twice last summer en route to an innings victory. But the last Ashes clash in Manchester also offers a possible warning. England were fresh from Stokes’ 2019 miracle when they pitched up in Lancashire and lost by 185 runs, guaranteeing the tourists would retain the urn. Australia will be eager to recreate their celebrations four years on, while England know all too well how it feels to see their surge fall flat.