There is no way that we should be discussing this. At 7.30 PM IST on August 25th, it looked like the Ashes was done and dusted, it looked like Tim Paine was going to become only the second Australian captain in the 21st century to retain the urn.
Yet here we are, seven days post the madness, not knowing what just hit us, sometimes even occasionally pinching ourselves to check if THAT knock was indeed real. The switch-hit, the botched-run out, the DRS goof up, the sight of Jack Leach cleaning his glasses, the final thump through the covers, close your eyes and the pictures are still as clear as Martin Guptill’s run-out is in the minds of the Kiwis. Headingley is like the hangover you’re unable to recover from due to the sheer strength of what you consumed. Yes, it is that strong, but at the same time, enjoyable.
And now, there are just two more days left before the next intoxication session begins. For us, the fans, irrespective of whether we recover or not, it doesn’t matter - there is nothing to lose, nothing at stake and we’re all ready to get sloshed once again. But for the English players, it’s like the all-important second date - it doesn’t matter if you nailed the first one, flub this and you lose your girl, the urn, to your worst enemy, all because you were still hungover from the first date.
Sport, in general, can be emotionally draining, especially for the athletes who emerge victorious. Ex-Arsenal defender Per Mertesacker once said that he completely lost motivation to play the game after winning the World Cup with Germany in 2014. England themselves showed signs of emotional and mental exhaustion in their Test against Ireland at Lord’s post the World Cup triumph, albeit resting several key players. While winning is tough, the ability to hit the reset button and start afresh once again is even tougher, and come September 4th, England will have an arduous task at hand as they try to put the ecstasy of the Headingley triumph aside.
It, by no means, will be an easy one, as the opposition they’re against have clearly shown that they’re here to win and that they’re willing to sacrifice anything to do just that - be it personnel or plans. The moment Jofra Archer floored Steve Smith at Lord’s, the whole world expected hell to break loose and for the Aussies to bombard the English with a barrage of bouncers. Three innings and 225 overs post the fall, just like coach Justin Langer promised, the Aussies have displayed an utmost amount of professionalism and have barely used the odd bouncer as a weapon, making winning their priority. Perhaps a lot of Australian teams in the past might have diverted their path and might have gone hunting for blood, but not this one, and this, in itself, serves as a warning sign for England.
As seen in the first three Tests, the Australian team have shown their frailties with the bat on multiple occasions, but what should, however, worry England, is the fact that with Warner finding his feet in Leeds and Smith all set to return, they might face a daunting task of coming up against an Aussie batting line-up where three of the top four are fit and firing. The “like-for-like” replacement for Smith was a handful for them at Headingley, and one wonders if they’re prepared to come up against the master and his understudy.
From Cape Town to Headingley, the Aussies have seen more lows than highs in the past year, but what they’ve done is not dwell on them, hit the reset button and get back to business once again. Now, one wonders, how big a part will momentum play in the fourth Test - will Australia be able to stop the haemorrhage, or will England just run through them? Recent results, at least in Test Cricket, have suggested that it barely plays a part and that the better team has just ended up winning.
In fact, comparison can be drawn from the 2010/11 Ashes, when Australia, who were hopeless back then, suddenly found themselves level in the series post the third Test due to the sheer brilliance of one man, Mitchell Johnson. They hoped that it would rub off on the others and help them win the Ashes, but alas, they were outclassed comfortably in the final two Tests by England. If momentum were a telling factor in Test cricket - let alone the fact that there’s an eight-day gap between these two Tests - England would have blown Australia away at Headingley after what happened at Lord’s, or maybe England’s 67 all-out would have happened at Edgbaston and not Headingley.
Amidst all this chaos and madness, England should have ideally gone back to the drawing board, for this was a perfect opportunity to fine-tune their team to ensure that they come back stronger. But now with their squad for the fourth Test announced, it has left everyone with more questions than answers.
Can England, who, in the last two matches have all but relied on one man in the batting department, afford to keep backing their underperforming batters when the series is on the line? Why move Jason Roy to the middle order and open with Joe Denly, when you have two readymade world-class talents in the form of Ollie Pope and Dominic Sibley, who would fit effortlessly into the team without having to make structural changes? Will they be ready to swap Chris Woakes with Sam Curran or bring in the latter for Leach, putting all the emotional aspects aside?
The questions lie in the open and the problems are there for everyone to see. Cherish it, embrace it and savour the Headingley win, for it’s a once in a lifetime moment, but the Ashes, by no means, is won or done already, and how England deal with the hangover might actually make or break the Ashes - more than Stokes’ stupendous effort. The date has been fixed at Old Trafford and the ball is in England’s court now. Headingley will either turn out to be a one-night stand which meant nothing, or the beginning of a blooming, long-lasting relationship, but then again, it all depends on what England really want.
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