|Place: Emirates Old Trafford Date: Wednesday, July 19 Time: 11:00 BST|
|Coverage: Live text commentary and in-play video clips on the BBC Sport website and app, plus the BBC Test Match special on BBC Sounds and BBC Radio 5 Sports Extra. Today’s Daily in Test highlights on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer from 7pm BST.|
Deep breathing go again
The time since the end of the third Ashes Test has been the longest period without Test cricket in this country since 1 June. Even then, we’ve had women’s ashes to keep blood pressure high and productivity low.
Now England and Australia’s men arrive in Manchester for the fourth chapter of what could become the greatest Ashes story ever told.
The previous three installments have all been heart-stoppers. If we are to define a ‘close’ Test as being won by three wickets or less, or 50 runs or less, there were 25 out of 340 Ashes matches before this summer. Since then there have been three out of three.
If that wasn’t enough, this series has also included Zak Crawley hitting the first ball for four (how long ago has that been?), members of the Marylebone Cricket Club becoming England ultras and a row over Alex Carey being cut the hair
So it wouldn’t be a surprise this week to see Chris Woakes kicked out of a Rusholme curry house, Joe Root getting a tattoo at Affleck’s Palace or Usman Khawaja signing for Manchester City, citing a long-term desire to play with Pep Guardiola. .
England’s defeat over the line at Headingley counts for little if they don’t win at Old Trafford. They order a drink again at the Last Chance Saloon, hoping they won’t have to turn water into wine.
The unprecedented feat of an England team coming from 2-0 down to win an Ashes is for now, but they could just as easily lose 4-1.
There are parallels with four years ago, when Australia bounced back from a terrible defeat in Leeds to win here and retain the urn.
On that occasion, manager Justin Langer made them sit back and re-watch Ben Stokes’ heroics to immediately exorcise the demons. This time they have taken advantage of the vacuum to disperse to all corners of Europe. There is a nagging feeling that the break and the halting of England’s momentum will have done the Aussies more good than the home side.
This is the last Ashes Test north of Nottingham for eight years – with neither Headingley nor Old Trafford on the schedule for the 2027 series – a move England skipper Stokes says he is “devastated”.
But while Headingley has been kind to England, Old Trafford has been anything but. They hadn’t tasted victory in an Ashes Test in Manchester since 1981 – most recently they won at the Gabba.
In seeking to change this unwanted record, they have recalled local boy and all-time record holder James Anderson, but even he has some history to amend. Amazingly, Anderson has never made five Test appearances for Old Trafford and hasn’t been on the winning side in an Ashes Test in eight years.
The hope is that the conditions will be more to Anderson’s liking than the dead tones of Edgbaston and Lord’s that left him powerless.
There should be some pace on the surface, although not as much as Headingley, and a gloomy weather forecast suggests useful overheads. Indeed, it is the threat of Manchester rain that adds a crucial variable and the prospect of more drama.
Stokes, without a funky idea, has suggested that a match shortened by time could play into England’s hands, his theory being that they are at their best when they dictate the pace of a game.
Last summer, it is true that against a far inferior South African side, England won the final Test at the Oval in just over two days after one day was ruled out and another called off at the death of the queen
“There could be some different tactical decisions to make,” Stokes said. “If there’s potentially even 100 overs lost in the game, maybe we should look at pressing the game faster than we normally would.”
While England seem to accept the rain, Australia seem to be on a roll which has resulted in the omission of top-line spinner Todd Murphy.
Murphy, in the Headingley side for the injured Nathan Lyon, bowled just two overs in England’s second innings and is dropped for Cameron Green, another all-rounder.
Had Lyon been fit there would have been no doubt about his place, but as captain Pat Cummins tried to explain the debate over Murphy’s place, he said he was “not comparing apples to apples”.
Cummins was sitting right next to the Old Trafford honors board which, if looked at, would have revealed that nine of the last 14 five-Tests at Old Trafford have been taken by spinners. Not since 2012 has Australia played a Test without a specialist spinner.
Green and all-rounder Mitchell Marsh in the same side give Australia great batting depth. Mitchell Starc on nine and Cummins himself on 10 make it difficult for England to take the 20 wickets they need, especially in a rain-soaked match.
But with Australia only needing a draw to at least retain the Ashes, it looks like a slightly negative move.
If the tourists felt a seamer was more useful than Murphy, why not turn to a top-line option in Michael Neser, himself good enough with the bat to score hundreds in each of his last two first-class games for Glamorgan ?
If there is any hint of pragmatism or uncertainty from the Aussies, it leaves the door open for England to pounce, even if their own team has a slightly tweaked look.
The combination they have landed in is two members of the top three with a Test average of less than 30, a wicketkeeper more likely to catch a cold than an advantage and a bowling attack too old to qualify for cheap life insurance.
Moeen Ali’s continued presence at number three continues a remarkable summer when he has not only come out of Test retirement but also missed a day of training to collect his OBE, struggled to use an agent dried in the hand, dropped and lost. a crack on the finger healed by a magical honey gel a fan from England sent him.
Moeen is on the cusp of a major feat. He needs just 23 runs to become the fourth Englishman, after Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff and Stuart Broad, to do the Test double of 3,000 runs and 200 wickets.
Stokes also has a similar milestone in his sights. In 197 wickets, he needs three to complete an even rarer double of 200 scalps and 6,000 runs. Only Garry Sobers and Jacques Kallis, bona fide greats of the game, are members of this exclusive club. Given the state of his knee, those three wickets currently feel like an “if” rather than a “when”.
As for Broad, he needs two wickets to reach 600 in Test cricket, joining four other men. How fitting it would be if regular rabbit David Warner was number 600.
All of this is possible in front of what will likely be another raucous crowd, bouncing up and down in a huge temporary stand that looks like nothing more than a loose bolt crashing down in a cloud of stale beer and costumes.
So many things happen. So much at stake.
Deep breathing go again