Big picture? You want the big picture? Well, here’s a picture so big it makes Rembrandt’s The Night Watch look like a postage stamp. After 135 years of Ashes campaigns, the series tally is currently locked at 32-32. England dominated in the 19th century, but to be fair Australia wasn’t even a country at that point. Once the 20th century and Australian federation arrived, the ledger evened up. Eventually. But it did happen in the 20th century. By 1997, Australia had finally caught up with England and the series tally was 27-27. One of sport’s oldest trophies had at length become one of the most closely contested. And over the next five days in Perth, Australia have the chance to make it 33-32.
And speaking of Ashes history, after this match the WACA will be exactly that: Ashes history. A new multi-sport stadium has been built in Perth and will be opened with an ODI next month, and in future the WACA’s only hope of international matches will be when lesser-drawing nations tour Australia. England probably won’t complain. While the WACA has been one of Australia’s worst home venues in recent years – they have won only four of their past nine Tests there – it has never been a good ground for England. In 13 Ashes Tests at the WACA, England have managed only one win – in 1978 during the World Series Cricket schism. It is possible that both teams will be happy to move across the Swan River to the new stadium.
But for now, the WACA it is, and the urn is on the line. England must at least salvage a draw to have any hope of retaining the Ashes. Only once in Ashes history has a team come back from 2-0 down to win a series, and that required Australia’s captain Don Bradman to pile up scores of 270, 212 and 169 in the remaining three Tests in 1936-37. Who will be England’s Bradman? No England player has scored a century yet in this series. Bradman also did not have to deal with the scrutiny caused by off-field issues, the likes of which have plagued England’s campaign. Only one thing is certain: if Joe Root wins the toss, he won’t send Australia in.
For Steven Smith, this Test is a chance to complete a remarkable cycle. It was at the WACA against England four years ago that Smith spontaneously added a preliminary movement to his batting technique, and his results have been astounding. Prior to that change, Smith had made 825 Test runs at 33.00 including one century. Since the change he has scored 4732 Test runs at 70.62, including 20 centuries. And now, returning to the WACA for an Ashes Test for the first time since then, Smith may find himself captaining Australia to an Ashes series win.
Australia WWWLL (last five matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Like his brother Shaun, Mitchell Marsh has started his Test career with a few ins and outs, though he also enjoyed a lengthier stretch in the team during 2015 and 2016. Now, Mitchell Marsh looks likely to be recalled as Australia seek an extra bowling option on a WACA pitch that might be good for batting. Marsh played the first two Tests in India this year before being sent home with a shoulder injury, and although he has only returned to bowling for the past two Sheffield Shield matches, his efforts have impressed Australia’s selectors enough to have him return to the squad, and probably to the XI.
On Test debut in Adelaide, Craig Overton took the most wickets in Australia’s first innings, top-scored in England’s first innings, and took an excellent catch running and diving from the outfield in Australia’s second innings. It was a highly encouraging all-round effort from Overton, who earned not only a blue cap at Adelaide Oval but also a blue badge of sorts, in the form of a nasty bruise on his ribcage caused by a Pat Cummins short ball. But the delivery that he will remember best surely will be his first Test wicket, that of Steven Smith, bowled by a ball that nipped in a touch but more importantly had Smith caught in two minds due to its perfect length. Joe Root will be hoping Overton can provide further such magic in Perth.
Australia will not name their XI until the morning of the match, but if the pitch looks remotely flat, it is expected that Mitchell Marsh will replace Peter Handscomb to provide a fifth bowling option.
Australia (probable): 1 Cameron Bancroft, 2 David Warner, 3 Usman Khawaja, 4 Steven Smith (capt), 5 Shaun Marsh, 6 Mitchell Marsh, 7 Tim Paine (wk), 8 Mitchell Starc, 9 Pat Cummins, 10 Josh Hazlewood, 11 Nathan Lyon.
An unchanged XI appears likely for England.
England (probable): 1 Alastair Cook, 2 Mark Stoneman, 3 James Vince, 4 Joe Root (capt), 5 Dawid Malan, 6 Moeen Ali, 7 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 8 Chris Woakes, 9 Craig Overton, 10 Stuart Broad 11 James Anderson
Pitch and conditions
Will it be the WACA pitch of old? Pace and bounce? These questions have preceded every Perth Test in recent years, and the answer varies from summer to summer. Some years there are hints of the old WACA, other years it is one of the country’s most docile surfaces. Western Australia coach Justin Langer says the past few Sheffield Shield games at the WACA have been played on flat pitches, but curator Matt Page is confident the surface will be quicker than last year. The forecast for Perth is hot, though with a chance of rain on days four and five.
Stats and trivia
Alastair Cook will become the eighth player in history to appear in 150 Tests
Stuart Broad is seven wickets away from becoming the second England player (James Anderson is the other) to take 400 in Tests
Australia have won only one of their past four Tests at the WACA – but it was against England, in 2013-14
“It’s probably not as hard as I would have liked it to be a day out, but 24 hours can change a wicket.”
Steven Smith on the WACA pitch on match eve
“I want to be concentrating on making sure we get things right on the field. That’s my job as captain. I’m trying to develop a team that over a long period can achieve success and do special things.”
Joe Root remains positive