MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - The world’s number one batsman Steve Smith returns to the fray as England and Australia resume battle on Wednesday in an Ashes series that is perfectly poised.
England’s victory in the third test at Headingley, in one of the most remarkable matches the game has witnessed, levelled the series at 1-1 with two encounters remaining.
Australia, with Smith back in their line-up, will retain the Ashes with victory at Old Trafford in the fourth test, while a win for England would set up a decider at the Oval next week.
England are in buoyant mood after the drama of their unexpected comeback win in Leeds, where they had been bowled out for 67 in the first innings and then secured victory with a 76-run final wicket partnership, led by Ben Stokes, who made an epic 135 not out.
“You come off the back of a win like that, it’s a huge lift for everyone in the squad. For that game to unravel the way it did has helped us turn up here full of confidence,” said England skipper Joe Root.
“We’re very much alive in this series. The fact we turned it around shows the character of the group. There was no hangover going into the second innings and we massively believe we should be winning this series,” he added.
England have made a switch to their seam bowling attack, bringing in Craig Overton for Chris Woakes while Root will shuffle his upper-order batsmen with Jason Roy dropping down to four and Joe Denly moving up to open with Rory Burns.
Roy, a successful part of England’s World Cup-winning one-day team admitted he has struggled at the top of the order.
“I knew that opening the batting in test cricket was going to be completely different to one-day cricket, but I have found it really difficult,” he said.
“Moving down the order to number four for this test, mentally it’s a lot more comforting. You get a bit more time to ease into an innings,” he said.
While defeat was hard to take for Australia, the return of Smith is a significant boost.
The 30-year-old has made a powerful personal comeback in this series, after serving a one-year ban from the game for his role in a ball-tampering scandal.
The Australian number four has made an emphatic return from his enforced absence to the longest format, with twin hundreds in the first Ashes test in Birmingham.
He followed that up with a 92 at Lord’s before being felled by a short ball from England fast bowler Jofra Archer. He then missed the Headingley test due to concussion.
Smith and Archer will resume their duel on what is expected to be a fast and bouncy surface at Old Trafford.
“I think everyone in the world is looking forward to watching Steve Smith bat. We always do,” said Aussie skipper Tim Paine, who is confident the batsman will pick up where he left off.
“Steve has missed one test Match, he hasn’t been out for 12 months. He came back from a 12-month layoff pretty well so I expect he will handle six days without batting pretty well.”
The out-of-form Usman Khawaja makes way for Smith while Australia will have to decide between Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc in their bowling attack.
Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Toby Davis