Big picture: Shootout at the last-chance saloon
“Sir, do you know they’ve cut us off? We’re entirely surrounded.” “Those poor bastards,” Puller said. “They’ve got us right where we want ’em. We can shoot in every direction now.”
But right now, with his entire unit under siege, Stokes might wish to take inspiration from the real-life antics of Lewis B “Chesty” Puller, as above, the most decorated Marine in US Military history, and a man who never let a lost cause get him down.
And as such, there’s no way out now except straight up and at ’em, into the teeth of a 2-0 series deficit, and with moral hellfire raining down from all quarters. And shockingly, given everything we know about this group of England players and what gets their juices pumping, it’s hard to imagine they’d want it any other way.
As for Australia, well, they’re doing just fine, thanks for asking. Notwithstanding their pre-series Bazball scepticism, and the comprehensive nature of their World Test Championship final victory over India, they surely cannot have envisaged sealing their first series win in England since 2001 as early as the third Test of the series.
It’s a task that will involve a hugely significant tweak to their starting line-up, with Nathan Lyon’s series-ending calf injury forcing the introduction of a new frontline spinner for the first time in 100 Tests. Todd Murphy is no out-and-out rookie after four Tests in India, but it takes a special type of offspinner – with the ball turning into the arc of England’s run-hungry right-handers – to hold their own against this line-up. New Zealand’s Michael Bracewell got clobbered at more than seven an over for his two scalps in the corresponding Headingley Test last summer.
In the grand scheme of things, however, it seems a peripheral consideration. Australia’s batters are, for the most part, in form and focus, with Usman Khawaja immoveable at the top of the order, and David Warner proving intermittently punchy. Steve Smith and Travis Head are both Test centurions this summer, while Marnus Labuschagne and Cameron Green have shown glimpses of their true selves amid slow starts to the campaign. Slow and steady has won the day so far. They won’t be deviating from their script any more than they are obliged to by the ferocity of England’s last-ditch assault.
But yeah, about that… we know, and Australia know, and England themselves certainly know, that the coming battle could be truly extraordinary.
Inevitably, Cummins was asked at his press conference about his memories of Headingley 2019, and the sense of missed opportunity that Australia felt with the series, then as now, seemingly in their grasp. His answers were engaging enough, but broadly irrelevant, because Stokes himself had already embarked on a re-enactment three days earlier at Lord’s.
The fact that that Stokes’ 155 had failed where his 135 not out had succeeded is less relevant than the message it sent out to his misfiring troops. It was a point that he had zeroed in on as he addressed the media after that match.
“We’re not up in the dressing-room saying go out and play this way,” Stokes told the BBC, amid an inquest into the happy hooking that had scuttled England’s first innings. “What we’re saying is, if you want to have a mindset of how you want to play, you stick with that, and you’ve got the backing of the whole dressing-room.”
How did England want to play in those first two Tests? Looking back on the bombast in the media and the proselytising about their “entertainment first” approach, there’s a clear sense of a side that had lost its bearings amid a remarkable run of success, and had forgotten the difference between “no consequences” cricket, and “no responsibilities”.
And if Stokes’ futile but stunning show of defiance has metaphorically knocked a few heads together within that self-help group of a dressing-room, then there’s no reason to believe that three in a row to win the Ashes – feats they achieved against New Zealand and Pakistan last year – should be out of their reach. Certainly Cummins, the man who delivered the ball that Stokes blazed for the winning boundary four years ago, will know better than anyone how it feels to be so tantalisingly close to your goal, only to have it ripped away by force majeure.
Perhaps the last word should go to the occasion itself, for this is perhaps not the scenario that Yorkshire’s beleaguered management had envisaged while scrambling, all of last year, to preserve their precious Ashes Test in the midst of the racism scandal that brought the club to its knees.
In a less fervent series, the build-up would surely have paid greater heed to the club’s past failings, especially in light of last week’s ICEC report, and the spotlight that fell on Lord’s (and certain unsavoury characters within its Long Room). Instead, and in an ironic tangent that captures the exceptionalism of Ashes cricket, Headingley’s patriotic duty is now to rise up as one and be a cauldron of spite for the incoming Aussies. It’s a dichotomy for addressing when the fever has died back down. Right now, it’s war, and would we have it any other way?
England LLWLW (last five Tests, most recent first)
In the spotlight: Jonny Bairstow and Alex Carey
Amid the maelstrom that has surrounded his fatal stroll at Lord’s, Jonny Bairstow has been very, very quiet. Every other player and pundit has had his or her say on the matter, but the man himself has clearly hunkered down, limiting his public response to a pointedly frosty handshake or two, while quietly brooding about the missed opportunity that that moment had created. And, in his inimitably potent manner, he’s doubtless vowed to make the world pay for the injustice.
For if England are to turn this scoreline on its head, then Bairstow needs to relocate his beast mode. So far, the omens are plentiful and pungent. He’s back at Headingley, his Yorkshire fortress – the scene of his blazing 162 and 71 not out against New Zealand last summer, the middle panel of his Bazball triptych. And he’s back at No.5, the position from which that mayhem was wrought, until his gruesome leg injury let Harry Brook in for similar fun and frolics over the course of the winter.
And, with any luck from England’s perspective, he’s very, very angry. Some players drop their bundle when emotion seeps into their game, Bairstow by contrast accesses areas of his game that are off-limits when the going is too good. For a comparative scenario, albeit in white-ball cricket, you might look to England’s wobble in the 2019 World Cup, when a string of group-stage losses left them needing back-to-back victories to reach the semi-finals. Bairstow obliged with a brace of ferocious hundreds against India and New Zealand, the first after lashing out at the media for “willing England to fail”. He’s got no such need for straw men to burn this week. All the ire he could possibly wish for is right there for him to claim.
And so, for Australia’s purposes, more of the same will suit them just fine – and that includes his quiet but potent contributions with the bat, including a key fifty at Edgbaston. The question is whether the furore will rattle him at any stage, especially when the wrath of the Western Stand descends on even his most momentary lapse. The team have wrapped themselves around him – in Lyon’s absence, he’s now the custodian of the team song, which arguably makes him the third-most important Australian, behind Cummins and the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (who has also done his bit for the cause by shushing his opposite number, Rishi Sunak… really, it has come to that). But even if his series returns do fall away now, at least he’s no longer best remembered for walking into a swimming pool in Karachi.
Team news: Enter the allrounders
England: 1 Zak Crawley, 2 Ben Duckett, 3 Harry Brook, 4 Joe Root, 5 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 6 Ben Stokes (capt), 7 Moeen Ali, 8 Chris Woakes, 9 Ollie Robinson, 10 Stuart Broad, 11 Mark Wood
Far fewer issues for Australia to contend with, with the only outstanding debate being the identity of their third seamer, with Scott Boland likely to return in place of Josh Hazlewood, who is in “uncharted territory” after playing back-to-back Tests for the first time since 2020-21.
However, their XI is also facing a significant absentee. Lyon’s series-ending calf injury is a formidable blow, one that brings to an end a run of 100 consecutive Test appearances, and robs Australia of a bowler with 496 wickets’ worth of experience. At times, Lyon’s methods seemed perfectly tailored to pricking the Bazball bravado: his nine wickets at 29.33 in two-and-a-half innings of the series included no fewer than four stumpings, as England’s batters lined up to give him the charge only to get suckered by that delectable drift and drop just short of a tonkable length.
And so, welcome to the Bazodrome, Murphy. Australia’s Ashes debutant is no stranger to the big occasion, after picking up 14 wickets at a creditable 25.21 in his four Tests in India earlier this year, including a memorable 7 for 124 on debut at Nagpur. He also played his part in Australia’s solitary win on that tour, with 20 tidy overs in their surprise success in Indore. But, as a measure of what Australia have lost, Lyon outmatched him 11 wickets to one in that Test. And as for his series economy rate of 2.56, it’s safe to say that’s about to head north…
Australia: (possible) 1 David Warner, 2 Usman Khawaja, 3 Marnus Labuschagne, 4 Steve Smith, 5 Travis Head, 6 Cameron Green, 7 Alex Carey (wk), 8 Mitchell Starc, 9 Pat Cummins (capt), 10 Todd Murphy, 11 Scott Boland
Pitch and conditions
Look up not down is the Headingley cliché, but given England’s bowler-stacked attack and their prior success in fourth-innings run-chases, Stokes has surely already made his mind up should he win the toss, even before looking at an ominously overcast opening day of the match. The temptation to bowl first is heightened by the likelihood that Friday’s second day will be the sunniest of the match, and therefore the best for batting. The weekend promises more cloud and scattered showers, but the series scoreline promises a fight to the finish, no matter how much play is lost to rain.
Stats and trivia
“I think the magical thing that would happen this week is for us to win the game and keep the Ashes alive. I don’t know what it is about Headingley, but you can always look back at certain things which have happened here in an Ashes series. We’ve got some very fond memories here as an England team, I’m sure supporters have got some fond memories as spectators as well. ’81 and 2019 will probably come up at some point around the ground.”
Ben Stokes on the Yorkshire vibes as the series reaches its crunchpoint
“I think the way our team’s conducted themselves over the last couple of years has been flawless really. We’ve been fantastic and I think that showed again on day five at Lord’s. I mean, there’s been talk this week about the underarm incident. I think it was 1970s. How far do you want to go back? We’ve all moved on. As I said the other day, the team did nothing wrong so we’re all comfortable.”
Pat Cummins, Australia’s captain, is unconcerned about the reaction to the Bairstow incident
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket