The Ashes may be gone but the notion of a dead rubber seldom applies when England meet Australia. A Test match between these two nations has a life of its own. There is now the added incentive of points in the Test Championship (no irony intended here, let’s give it a go) and a drawn series would be a welcome rarity in Ashes cricket.
Moreover the supposedly “dead” game can often have lasting significance – there are several precedents for that. In 1987 England arrived in Sydney for the final Test 2-0 up, which was a bit of a surprise even if the team were deemed to have only three weaknesses: their batting, bowling and fielding. A tight contest ensued and was narrowly won by Australia, who were then led by Allan Border, an ego-free man who had no great ambition to be the Test captain.
If Australia had lost in Sydney the strong consensus was that Border would have resigned or he would have been sacked. But after that victory it was decided that Border should stay. And so he did until 1994, by which time Australia’s standing in world cricket – and most certainly in Ashes cricket – had soared. Defeat Australia in Sydney back in 1987 and there was every chance that Graeme Wood might have been appointed Test captain.
In 1997 England under Mike Atherton arrived at the Oval with the series lost and the mood grim after another Ashes thrashing. Then in the final Test innings of the summer Australia were bowled out by Phil Tufnell and Andy Caddick for 104, 20 runs short of victory. The smiles returned. Atherton had been minded to resign at the end of that series but in the glow of victory and after persuasion from those in charge he agreed to lead the side to the Caribbean that winter, a decision he subsequently regretted (he would resign so swiftly after the Antigua Test that no one could possibly change his mind).
So what happens at the Oval is likely to matter, leaving aside the obvious excitement of which side is going to win the game. It will not have a great bearing on the legacy of Trevor Bayliss, who finishes his stint as England coach after the game. He leaves in an unusual manner, without recriminations of any sort. Look back at the line of England coaches and their departures, even those of the obviously successful ones such as Duncan Fletcher and Andy Flower, took place amid considerable angst. Bayliss will be leaving with a scented candle from the press and the almost universal gratitude of his players.
The sceptics may pronounce that he did very little for a lot of money, partly because he never bounced up and down on the touchline, jigging like most Premier League football managers – though this may now be beyond Roy Hodgson.
Bayliss gave freedom and responsibility to the players; he supported them; he never slagged them off to protect his own reputation, partly because he did not care too much about his own reputation. The notion that he was a good one-day coach and a bad Test coach has always struck me as an easy yet ridiculous distinction. It would have been better if he had a deeper knowledge of cricketers beyond the England bubble, but in cricket the best coaches do not intervene too much. All in all he departs having done a fine job.
However, he does leave an unsettled Test side, which struggles to score enough runs and has issues to resolve. In another era it would be regarded as astonishing that England should persist with the same batting personnel throughout a Test series when two of their batsmen are averaging less than 20 after four matches: in this case Jason Roy and Jos Buttler.
There are three reasons for that: consistency of selection and the emphasis on giving any incumbent a fair go is now deemed to be extremely important. Often this actually proves to be an impediment to the player concerned when he is given such a long spell in the team he inevitably has to do something remarkable to be recalled.
There is also the complication that some players– such as Roy, Buttler and Jonny Bairstow – now have the option to forsake Test cricket altogether for some of short‑form leagues if they are not selected.
More importantly the selectors are hamstrung when they wish to change and hopefully improve the team because most of the candidates are starved of any red-ball cricket throughout a Test series.
This situation will be exacerbated next summer when two short-form formats dominate the cricketing calendar in June, July and August, though this does not seem to worry those in charge from Ashley Giles and Ed Smith downwards. On Thursday Buttler stays in the team, unlike Roy, who must wait to see whether he is required for the winter Tests.
The Oval Test is also a significant one for Joe Root. It is legitimate to debate whether it is best that he should continue to lead the side and whether his drop in form, albeit in a tough summer for batsmen, is a consequence of the captaincy. Unlike Atherton in 1997 he is keen to continue. But that does not necessarily mean that he should. Ben Stokes, Rory Burns and, most obviously, Buttler, if he can score a few runs, are the alternatives.