England’s somewhat perplexing response to their 185-run defeat at Old Trafford was to name an identical squad for the fifth Test at The Oval where avoiding a series defeat remains the last target left in the home dressing room.
Regaining the Ashes – the pre-tournament aspiration which seemed so plausible given the confidence culled from winning the World Cup – is no longer on the table after Manchester, where Joe Root’s men, once again, looked fragile and incapable of dealing with the demands of the five-day game.
England suddenly look like rabbits in the headlights although the quick turnaround could be a blessing, especially if the Aussies have been celebrating properly after retaining the urn on Sunday.
The Oval used to be a safe haven for England – they went eight without defeat there from 2002 – but their recent record is more mixed with four losses in the last nine.
Of greater concern than any historical references, however, is the more pressing matter of how to remove Steve Smith.
The former Australian captain took his series tally to 671 runs at Old Trafford, where he scored 211 and 82. That second-innings effort was his lowest score so far and he’s all but taken top series runscorer honours despite having missed a match.
If only England had a Smith – or even a Marnus Labuschagne, Smith’s concussion sub at Lord’s who has given Root an almighty headache ever since.
First-innings fifties from Rory Burns and Root merely ensured England avoided the follow-on in Manchester but England, despite glimpses from bravery, were still skittled for 197 second time round, the third time in the series they’ve been bowled out for less than 200.
There were wickets once more for Jofra Archer and Stuart Broad, who is revelling in the role of his country’ senior seamer in Jimmy Anderson’s absence. Ben Stokes, however, comes into the final Test nursing a shoulder problem.
There are no such worries for the Australians with Mitchell Starc repaying the selectors’ faith in him with 54 not out and four wickets. The left-armer adds a different dimension to the Pat Cummins-Josh Hazlewood double act which has been simply far too hot for England to handle.
The weather’s set fair at The Oval but bright sunshine doesn’t necessarily mean big runs.
It might still be summer but it feels like autumn and seamers on both sides will be getting the new ball to dance.
The first wickets at Old Trafford fell at 1, 10, 1 and 1 and with Hazlewood and Cummins on fire, take England’s openers to miss out.
Inevitably, Steve Smith heads top Australian runscorer betting having failed to score fewer than 82 in a single innings.
You can hardly say his price is too short given what he’s done though Marnus Labuschagne, the only other batsman in any sort of form in the tourists’ top seven, looks a fair alternative.
The South African-born stand-in has bagged four half-centuries in five knocks and looks immovable.
Plenty of England’s troubled top order would dearly love to sign off in style and Jonny Bairstow is tipped to defy the odds.
He’s in for 23.5 first-innings runs on a ground where he has scored more than that in five of his last seven knocks, and the Yorkshireman is far too good to fail again.