Ben Stokes lit up the cricket field at Headingley and the world still remains mesmerized by his uncanny ability to win matches single-handedly. The Ashes series, courtesy of his unbeaten knock, has now become an absolutely riveting affair. The series hangs in balance with both sides eying the Ashes urn with two Tests remaining. Australia, who were shaken by Stokes' blitz, head into the fourth Test at Old Trafford with the comeback of their batting stalwart and the new number 1 ranked batsman Steve Smith, hoping that he could continue on his merry way.
The visitors were on the cusp of holding the Ashes only for Stokes' magical 135 that took the wind out of Australia's sails and delivered England an incredible one-wicket win in the third Test at Headingley.
Usman Khawaja is set to miss the 4th Test after his lukewarm performance, averaging a meager 20.33 in his last six innings. He will make way for Smith who was ruled out with a mild concussion having been hit by a nasty bouncer from Jofra Archer that jolted him quite severely. Smith is yearning to give Archer a fitting riposte after being rattled on the bonce whereas Archer, who regularly clocks 90mph, is also fired up to pick from where he left the third Test.
Smith, upon his comeback after the Sandpapergate fiasco, returned to his winning ways, thumping 144 and 142 in Australia's whopping 251-run win in the first Test at Edgbaston before making a crucial 92 in the drawn second Test at the iconic Lord's Cricket Ground.
On Steve Smith's comeback after the concussion, Justin Langer, who himself has been at the receiving end of many bouncers in his playing days, was confident that Smith would declutter his mind and make a roaring comeback.
"When you get hit, it's always a little voice on your shoulder. You've got to have a good strategy and he works the game out better than anyone I've ever met in my life," opined Langer.
Marnus Labuschagne has retained his spot in the playing XI as he didn't make Smith's absence feel that much, impressing by scoring three consecutive Test fifties. He demonstrated solid defense and soaked up tremendous pressure in the big moments since his unexpected promotion into the side.
Mitchell Starc, who hasn't yet featured in the ongoing series, will be eager to be picked at the business end of the Ashes on a pitch that is known to be a happy hunting ground for fast bowlers. The leading wicket-taker of the ICC 2019 World Cup has been warming the bench of late, but he is indisputably one player that England needs to watch out because he can spear in heat-seeking yorkers and baffle the batsmen with his rapid pace.
Nathan Lyon has recovered from his ankle injury and is all set to befuddle the batsman, particularly in the later stage of the match when the pitch starts to deteriorate.
England have not stuck with the winning combination. They have made one change by benching Chris Woakes—who leaked many runs and have inducted the in-form lanky right-arm fast bowler, Craig Overton, who can bowl in the channel consistently. Also, James Anderson, their premier wicket-taker, has been declared unfit due to his nagging calf strain and is out of contention for the final two Tests.
Instead of tinkering with the top-order England's contingency plan, after being dismissed for a mere 67 in their first innings at Headingley, is a reshuffling of their batting order. England captain has asked Joe Denly to open the batting and demoted Jason Roy to number four.
After not being able to make a mark in the longer format, Roy's omission was on the cards but England continues to put faith in the swashbuckling batsman and will now rely on Denly instead to see off the new ball alongside Rory Burns. The move could backfire as Denly has only made one first-class century as an opener in the last eight years.
Australia coach Justin Langer gave a novel pep talk to his team ahead of the fourth Test and said his team would take inspiration from an incident that occurred in the childhood of Muhammad Ali—the greatest boxer of all time.
"He got his bike stolen and that was the fire he needed to become the greatest boxer of all time. We felt a bit like we got the Ashes stolen the other day. They won that Test match, so we felt a bit like it'd been stolen from us. Now we've got to work out what we're going to do, and use that as fire. We're not going to feel sorry for ourselves and let it slip," said Langer.
Australia: David Warner, Marcus Harris, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Travis Head, Matt Wade, Tim Paine (c & wk), Pat Cummins, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood
England: Rory Burns, Joe Denly, Joe Root (c), Jason Roy, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow (wk), Jos Buttler, Craig Overton, Jofra Archer, Stuart Broad, Jack Leach