Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Ashes at stake in Oval battle

One final Ashes hurrah for Andrew Flintoff?.

Match facts

Thursday, August 20-24, 2009
Start time 11.00 (10.00 GMT)

Big Picture

For the second time in four years, the destination of the Ashes will be decided at the same venue where the legend was conceived way back in 1882. In 2005, The Oval in South London was the stage for one of the most wildly celebrated draws of all time, as a jittery England overcame their final-day nerves, thanks to an eye-poppingly aggressive 158 from Kevin Pietersen, a performance that carried his team clear of disaster and all the way to an open-top bus parade through Trafalgar Square the following morning.

This time, Pietersen will not be around to mop his colleagues' brows - his dodgy right Achilles underwent surgery after the second Test, and he might not even be fit in time for the tour to South Africa this winter. Instead, all of England's hopes and prayers are invested in their other modern-day colossus, Andrew Flintoff, who missed the fourth-Test debacle at Headingley due to doubts about his right knee, but is certain to be thrust into the fray for what is scheduled to be his final Test appearance.

Flintoff has said that success in this summer's Ashes would be an achievement to surpass even his magnificent performance four years ago, and those sentiments have been echoed by Australia's captain, Ricky Ponting, who has spent most of the year playing down the significance of that defeat, but has now gone on record as saying that this week is the perfect opportunity for vengeance. The quality of the cricket may not have touched the heights we saw when Australia were last on England's shores, but the level of competitiveness has scarcely diminished a notch.

Form guide

(last five matches, most recent first)

England - LDWDW
Australia - WDLDL

Watch out for…

Jonathan Trott: A Test debut is, by its very nature, an anxious occasion, but spare a thought for England's 645th and latest selection. At the age of 28, and with nearly a decade of first-class experience to fall back on, including a stellar 2009 in which he has averaged more than 80 to date, Trott is as well prepared as he could possibly hope to be for such an auspicious occasion. But there's no way that this was part of England's summer masterplan. The loss of Pietersen, and the abject failure of a supine middle-order at Headingley, has forced the selectors into a drastic selection. Still, South African-born batsmen have a handy record in Oval Ashes deciders, so that's something.

Mitchell Johnson: Try as we might, it's been hard to tear our eyes away from Johnson's travails this summer. At Cardiff he was poor, at Lord's he was appalling. At Edgbaston he showed signs of a resurgence but was still clobbered at five runs an over. And then at Headingley, everything clicked. Suddenly he was fast and straight, with a vicious bouncer and devastating late swing from a full length, and he was too good for England's abject batsmen. A five-wicket haul was the reward for his - and the selectors' - perseverance, and at last the hype that had accompanied him back from South Africa seemed justified. More of the same at The Oval, and England may struggle to stay in the contest.

Team news

Trott's debut is the big news, Flintoff's return is the secondary story. Ian Bell's promotion to No. 3 has raised an array of eyebrows from those who've studied his average in that position (31.00) and ascertained that he is a glug of ketchup short of a full bottle, and the identity of the fifth bowler remains the mystery to keep us on our toes until the toss. Monty Panesar is in the frame as a potential second spinner, Ryan Sidebottom is lurking to provide some extra lateral movement. More likely, however, is Steve Harmison's retention on a ground that suits his style, with the unlucky Graham Onions returning to the bench through no fault of his own.

England (probable) 1 Andrew Strauss (capt), 2 Alastair Cook, 3 Ian Bell, 4 Paul Collingwood, 5 Jonathan Trott, 6 Matt Prior (wk), 7 Andrew Flintoff, 8 Stuart Broad, 9 Graeme Swann, 10 James Anderson, 11 Steve Harmison.

All week the talk from the Australian camp has left English observers incredulous. How could they possibly contemplate leaving out Stuart Clark, a player with 29 wickets in six Ashes Tests, and the man whose straight lines and subtle swing goaded his colleagues into abandoning their scattergun approach at Headingley, to dramatically successful effect. Two players, however, are competing for a recall. Brett Lee, the reverse-swing specialist, as Ricky Ponting described him this week, and Nathan Hauritz, the unassuming spinner who has been working on his strategies with Saqlain Mushtaq. Hauritz is probably the likeliest to return, but an all-seam attack deserves to remain the attack of choice.

Australia (probable) 1 Simon Katich, 2 Shane Watson, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Michael Hussey, 5 Michael Clarke, 6 Marcus North, 7 Brad Haddin (wk), 8 Mitchell Johnson, 9 Stuart Clark, 10 Peter Siddle, 11 Ben Hilfenhaus.

Pitch and conditions

Dry and bare, but invariably a true wicket, The Oval offers rewards to sides who risk two spinners, but there is plenty of bounce and carry for the seamers on either side as well. "Any bowler who is not on top of their game can expect to be punished, particularly once the batsmen are in," Chris Adams, Surrey's cricket manager, told Cricinfo. "Australia certainly have in-form batsmen at the moment, and it could be quite painful for the bowlers if they're allowed to get set."

The big concern for both teams, but especially England who desperately need to win, is the weather forecast. It has been glorious in London all week, but the rain is set to return with a vengeance this week.

Stats and trivia

  • England have won 37 and lost 18 of the 91 matches they have played at The Oval, while Australia won 6 and lost 15 out of 34. With three wins, two draws and one defeat since 1985, it is England's most successful Ashes venue in recent times.

  • In the four Tests in the series so far, Australia's fast bowlers - Ben Hilfenhaus, Peter Siddle, Johnson and Clark - have averaged 28.11 per wicket for their 53 scalps.
  • England's fast men - James Anderson, Onions, Stuart Broad, Flintoff and Harmison - have conceded more than 37 runs per wicket.


"There is nothing bigger than playing a deciding Test in an Ashes series, and you have to grab these moments when they present themselves because you may never experience such a match ever again."
Ricky Ponting has been around the block a few times in his 14-year international career, but it doesn't get bigger than this

"If we win this one it will be a far greater achievement than 2005. That was fantastic but the side had performed well over a period of time and we'd beaten everyone in the world."
Andrew Flintoff believes his final Test could be his finest hour