At the start of the pandemic few could have said with any confidence that England’s men would play all 18 of their scheduled internationals. But here they are, about to complete the set. And it’s the small matter of a series decider against Australia.
Justin Langer revealed during the buildup that when the tourists looked to be cruising to an unassailable 2-0 lead during the second one-day international on Sunday night, thoughts turned to which of his reserve players might come in for the expected dead rubber.
Instead, having seen his side crumble in their pursuit of 232 thanks to the excellence of Chris Woakes and Jofra Archer, Australia’s head coach has been forced to stick the plan for mass rotation in his much-kicked bin and now the main decision is whether to bring back Steve Smith.
Smith missed the first match after being struck on the head in the nets last Thursday, and was again absent for the second despite passing two concussion tests. Langer said the 31-year-old was “tracking in the right direction” but no risks will be taken.
This possible return for arguably the world’s premier batsman adds a further layer of intrigue to the finale and England, who have now gone five years at home without losing a bilateral ODI series, are planning as if he will play.
“We are wary of the impact Steve Smith could have,” said Woakes, giving his captain, Eoin Morgan, a break from media duties. “We know he’s a world-class player and we’ve been on the receiving end in the past.
“But at the same time it can be tricky coming in with not much cricket under your belt and having to perform from ball one in a decider. We’ll prepare for him to play and if he does, we have our plans for him. Australia would love to see him back.”
After the electric duel at Lord’s last summer, and the sickening blow that has doubtless informed Australia’s caution on this tour, all eyes will be on the latest rematch between him and Archer before they once again become teammates at Rajasthan Royals.
Archer’s pace has certainly troubled the Australians throughout the two white-ball series – David Warner has fallen to him four times in four innings – but it is worth remembering England’s spearhead has yet to claim Smith’s wicket during eight encounters in international cricket.
A fresh pitch at Old Trafford – or relatively fresh, given the ground has hosted three Tests and five white-ball matches – awaits the teams and so the bar for a decent total should rise from the previous low-scoring affair.
This will be welcomed by England, who are likely to remain unchanged but are yet to fire with the bat. Sam Billings made a century during Friday’s lost cause, and Jonny Bairstow a scratchy 84, but otherwise it has been a series of struggle against the wiles of Josh Hazlewood and Adam Zampa.
The fact the series is still on the line is down to the tail sufficiently wagging on Sunday and Morgan’s bowlers then seizing the moment during the chase. This, plus the demise of Australia in the first T20, tells Woakes the never-day-die attitude associated with England’s batting of late has now bled into the attack.
Woakes said: “We have earned respect across a four- or five-year period. I think teams do realise we can reel them in from any position and the game’s not done until they get over the line.
“We have that character and belief in the dressing room that we can win from any position. A few years ago we probably felt we could only win from that position with the bat whereas now we can do it with the ball as well.”
Langer insisted mental fragility was not to blame for Australia’s latest meltdown and instead his chief regret from the tour has come off the field, following recent criticism by Michael Holding for not taking a knee in support of Black Lives Matter.
“To be completely honest, we could have talked more about it leading up to that first game,” said Langer. “There was so much going on leading up to us getting here, maybe we should have thought and talked a bit more about it.
“Michael Holding is one of the great people of world sport, certainly of our game, and I have got great admiration and love for him. We all watched his heartfelt thoughts at the start of the summer and when he says things it’s important we all listen.”
It appears unlikely the gesture will reappear before the decider on Wednesday, despite this slight sense of embarrassment. But given the summer witnessed so far, one that has defied all predictions, already delivered a powerful anti-racism message and produced some memorable cricket, you would not rule it out entirely.