Australia captain Tim Paine wants to put the “icing on the cake” with victory in the fifth Ashes Test as England scramble for a plan to dismiss the insatiable Steve Smith.
The tourists finally saw off stubborn England at Old Trafford on Sunday to take a 2-1 lead in the five-match series with just one match to go, meaning they will retain the urn regardless of the result at the Oval.
To stand any chance of levelling the series, World Cup winners England will have to find a way to solve the riddle of the immovable Smith, who has scored 671 runs in just five innings at an astonishing average of more than 134.
The former captain has carried his team’s batting with three centuries and two fifties, including a double-century in the win in Manchester, with Marnus Labuschagne the only other batsman who has shown any consistency.
Smith, who returned to Test action in England after completing a 12-month ball-tampering ban, has made his mountain of runs despite missing three innings after he was struck by a Jofra Archer bouncer.
Given a full series, the freakish Smith might well have been even closer to Don Bradman’s record of 974 runs for the most runs ever made in a Test series, set in 1930.
The other key factor for Australia has been the strength of their pace attack, with Josh Hazlewood and world No 1 Pat Cummins catching the eye with 42 wickets between them.
Paine said Australia were “very hungry” to win their first Ashes series in England since 2001 by avoiding defeat in the Oval Test, starting on Thursday.
“This is our grand final,” he said. “We want this Test just as much as any other Test that we’ve played in this series.”
Speaking about the tour in general, the Australia skipper said: “Bar probably an hour at Headingley it’s gone as we’d have liked.
“We would like to be 3-1 up already but we made a few errors at Headingley (third Test) in that last hour but we’ve moved on from it. We’re obviously ecstatic to be here at 2-1 and we want to put the icing on the cake and make sure it’s 3-1 before we go home.”
All-rounder Mitchell Marsh has been called into the 12-man squad in place of batsman Travis Head to ease the workload on Australia’s fast bowlers.
Joe Root must inspire his troops to one last effort after a gruelling season in which England became world champions in the 50-over format for the first time. Their failure to win back the Ashes has prompted questions over the Yorkshireman’s position, particularly given his inconsistent batting throughout the series.
But he said he knew the direction in which he wanted to take the team and was already looking forward to the battle in Australia in 2021-22.
“It’s bitterly disappointing to not have got the Ashes back, but we haven’t lost anything yet,” said the defiant England skipper. “We’ve got to make sure that we square the series up and there’s Test Championship points to play for as well, which down the line could make a huge difference.”
One-day specialist Jason Roy and seamer Craig Overton have been left out of the starting XI, with all-rounders Sam Curran and Chris Woakes coming into the side.
Root said Roy, who has had a disappointing series, had missed out because the team needed re-balancing due to Stokes’s injury.
Stokes is England’s top-scorer in the series, with 354 runs and two centuries but, with the exception of Rory Burns, the rest of the batsmen have struggled to build totals for the bowlers to defend.
In the continuing absence of the injured James Anderson, Root will be relying on his new-ball pairing of Stuart Broad and Archer to do the damage. But he will know that for every minute Smith is at the crease, any hopes of denying Australia will recede.
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