Ed Hawkins is not getting carried away by Australia's 2-1 lead and says the toss is the most important factor at The Oval from Thursday...
"On a fourth or fifth day pitch, England might find the answer they have searched for all series quite easy to reach: how do you get Smith out cheaply?"
England v Australia
Thursday 12 September 11.00
Live on Sky Sports Ashes
England only have themselves to blame
England are hurting after defeat at Old Trafford ensured the urn would return with Australia. Maybe the pain is not too great, though. That or they are sadomasochists. How else can you explain the confirmation of squad places of Jason Roy and Joe Denly for the denouement?
The sight of them walking to the wicket - in whichever position England fudge this time - is macabre. Poor Roy must have been a very naughty boy in a previous life with Mother Cricket insistent on twisting the knife.
Misery is rarely self-inflicted but the England selectors, coach and captain must be embarrassed for stubbornly refusing to make changes after they were given a lifeline at Headingley. And, no, the selection of Craig Overton for Chris Woakes does not suffice. Dom Sibley, Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes can count themselves unfortunate.
Sam Curran, too, who was the player of the series against India last summer. If Ben Stokes is not fit enough to bowl it might make sense to pick him instead of Roy.
Brave Australia could make changes
Zero to hero. Tim Paine is now being lauded as an Australia great after he became the first to lead his country to an urn-securing win in England since 2001. Failing to grasp the leg before rules at Leeds doesn't seem so long ago for most of us.
Steve Smith, of course, is the true architect of the success. Had he batted like a mere great instead of a God then England's green gills would have a different hue. Mind you, had he played at Headingley Stokes would probably have needed to make 235.
Unlike England, Australia have not been afraid to make changes. It's worth remembering that 18-wicket Josh Hazlewood did not start the series. True, other calls have not been as successful - Marcus Harris for Cameron Bancroft - but a selection panel which does push the button puts the rest on notice. England should learn from that.
There could be more changes. Nathan Lyon has a tear on his spinning finger so has to be a doubt. They have no other spinner in the squad. James Pattinson might slot back in. Travis Head may also come under pressure from the unlucky Usman Khawaja.
Bowlers bang in the game
Last summer England posted 332 in the first dig against India. That was 30 runs fewer than the average in the previous 12 Tests. The year before England were ten behind the mark against South Africa. The bowlers are wrestling with the Oval's reputation as a batting wicket with averages coming down. Indeed, backing 350 or more would have cost you seven times in the last 14 first-innings. England were rolled for 149 by Australia in 2016 and India managed only 148 the year before. In 2010 England totalled 233 v Pakistan, South Africa scored 194 in 2008 and England made 173 against Pakistan in 2006. Runs are not guaranteed.
Toss still key
England are [2.64], Australia [2.06] and the draw is [7.0]. Despite the balance of power - and regular readers may doze off at this point - we still believe the most significant factor in the contest to be the toss. Two poor batting units need to wrap themselves up in the comfort blanket that a first-innings hit provides.
Smith is the exception, of course. But on a fourth or fifth day pitch, England might find the answer they have searched for all series quite easy to reach: how do you get Smith out cheaply?
Australia, therefore, make little appeal at [2.06] pre-toss, particularly as their intensity could drop a smidge. Of course they want to win the series but their main objective has been achieved and the fire might not burn as fiercely. If they bat first, we can expect a cut to [1.80].
England, then, might be worth a shout if that price can hold with the toss in their favour. One thing Root did get right at Old Trafford was saying the flip was crucial. The draw is fair considering no rain has been forecast. This column needs an Australia win, as advised pre-series. If they don't get it, we will be a little sore.
Stokes a poke
To £100 level stakes betting Joe Root at average odds of 3/1 for top England first-innings runscorer in the last year you'd now be down £2,000. He goes off favourite again at 3s with Sportsbook. Rory Burns is next best at 4s and it is arguable that he now deserves more respect. His study sample is still too small to know whether he's a bet or not but purely on eye, discipline and technique he could be skinnier. Stokes gets a 9/2 quote from Sportsbook. As for Stokes, Sportsbook go 5/6 he takes under 1.5 wickets in the first-innings. We suspect he might not bowl and play as a batsman only. It's worth a nibble.
A lay of Smith?
Smith is no better than even money for top Australia runscorer. It is the shortest price we can remember for such a market. If that were to be replicated on the exchange there could be a queue to lay him. Smith is extraordinary but at some stage he has to return to the mean and that ain't even money. Marnus Labuschagne looks a fancy at 4s, likewise David Warner who might appreciate a bit more pace in the wicket and slightly less lateral movement. Smith is 8/11 for a first-innings 50 and 7/4 for a ton.
Ed Hawkins P-L
Based only on available prices. Does not include back-to-lay in-running match advice or commission rate. Figures 2013-2016 on 1pt level stakes. New points system (0.5pt-5) introduced for 2017. Includes Hawk-Eye stats column p-l