What's Still at Stake for Australia in the Ashes?
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Australia may have surrendered the Ashes for a third series in a row following Monday’s tense draw at Old Trafford, yet with two Test matches left to play in the five-match series, there is still plenty at stake for Michael Clarke’s men this summer.
The tourists have now decamped north to Chester-le-Street for this fourth game of the series, trailing England 2-0, but you would be a fool for thinking the Aussies would just give up and simply let Alastair Cook’s men win the final two matches now that they cannot claim the urn.
No, it is not part of an Australian cricketer’s DNA to just roll over and die, even if the Ashes are not at stake, and you can be damn sure that has been the message all week to the players from coach Darren Lehmann in the aftermath of the seeing the rain wash away their hopes of winning in Manchester.
And "Boof" will also have been at pains to point out that there is still much to play for in these final two Test matches of the summer for the tourists, including …
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You cannot tell me that Australia’s failure to get their hands on the Ashes for a third series in a row, the first time that has happened since "Botham’s Ashes" in 1981, has not hurt the tourists badly.
Some of the squad, like skipper Michael Clarke, have now made three consecutive tours of the UK without leaving these shores with the urn in their possession, while other more younger members, such as Steve Smith, must now know how a generation of England cricketers regularly felt in the '90s when it comes to the pain of losing the Ashes.
Either way, just as Sir Alex Ferguson was famous for doing with his players on the rare occasions that Manchester United were beaten to the Premier League title, Clarke and Lehmann will have been making sure the rest of the squad remember the anguish they felt in the dressing-room in Manchester on Monday afternoon when told that the Test had been abandoned.
It will of course be hard to get themselves up for these final two contests in the knowledge that they cannot actually win the Ashes, but pride is at stake here, and the tourists must not forget either about how they managed to restore that to their game at Old Trafford following the debacle at Lord’s.
And from the depths of despair can rise a glorious future for this Australia team, starting at Chester-le-Street in this Test match …
Drawing Inspiration from Levelling the Series
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England may now have their hands on the urn following Monday’s rain-affected draw at Old Trafford, but with two games left in the five-match series, Australia can still return home with what would be a hugely creditable 2-2 draw.
And if that scenario were to happen, then it would represent the tourists’ best performance in an Ashes series in England since they last won on these shores 12 years ago, with Australia having won just two Tests in this country since 2001.
Meanwhile, the momentum that winning these final two games would give Clarke’s side going into the return series Down Under later this year would be immeasurable, and potentially also decisive in the end result come January 2014 in Sydney.
Even cutting the final advantage to just 2-1 in England’s favour could prove crucial come Brisbane in November, so these last ten days of cricket this summer are massively important for the tourists.
On your bike, son: Harris celebrates snaring Cook at Old Trafford to continue his dominance over the England top order in the previous two Tests
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The last Test at Old Trafford saw Australia come out on top in a number of key individual head to heads, which was ultimately why they bossed the game from state to finish, and Lehmann will be desperate for his players to carry on that trend in these final two Tests.
Skipper Clarke dominated the England bowling attack for the very first time this summer, including crucially getting the better of off-spinner Graeme Swann, while elsewhere seamers Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris both continued to outsmart England run machines Cook and Jonathan Trott as they had done at Lord’s. Also, David Warner looks like he is ready for a fight (again) now that he is finally back in the starting lineup.
That, of course, is the beauty of the now all-too-rare five-match Test series in cricket these days, as it allows these delicious little subplots between certain individuals to develop throughout the course of the contest as players start to expose, and then exploit, certain weaknesses in an opponent’s game.
And with another seven Test matches still to be played between these two fierce rivals between now and January, Australia will be keen to maintain their stranglehold over certain English players in these last two games as they look ahead to the return matchup Down Under later this year.
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It is perhaps not unfair to say that Australia finally stumbled on their strongest 11 at Old Trafford more through luck than judgement, but however they went about achieving it, do not expect the tourists to revert much away from those same 11 players, barring injury, for the final two Tests of the series.
However, there are still one or two areas of debate that will need to be decided upon before the return series gets under way at the Gabba on November 21 if Australia are to be confident of getting their hands back on the urn. These next two Test matches will be vital towards settling those issues once and for all.
Firstly, who should be Australia’s No. 1 spinner Down Under, Nathan Lyon or novice Ashton Agar? Just as important, who will be Clarke’s third seamer in Brisbane to back up first-choices Harris and Siddle, with the unconvincing Mitchell Starc the man currently in possession of that role?
And perhaps most crucially of all, who will bat in the key No. 3 position in the return series, current incumbent Usman Khawaja or the discarded Phil Hughes?
Lots of team lineup questions therefore are still to be settled in these final two Tests of the summer, and each one has a big impact on the next series in Australia as well. So there is plenty at stake for the tourists in the remainder of this Ashes series.