And so, to the final act. We were on the brink of the ultimate decider which would have been the biggest Test in this country since the corresponding fixture in 2005, and perhaps ever. Sadly, the Manchester weather put paid to that and Australia were able to cling onto the urn as puddles formed on the Old Trafford outfield.
Across the two sides, this will likely be the final Ashes outing for a significant number of players. Many of the leading stars of the series are well into their 30s. There have been rumours of retirements on both sides, but it appears there won’t be any definite announcements at a ground that has farewelled many stars.
Until the two days of rain in Manchester this had been a series that had lived up to all the hype. It deserves a memorable finish even if the urn is no longer up for grabs.
(last five matches, most recent first)
This series has been a far cry from 2019 for Steven Smith. It was going to be a tall order to scale those 774-run heights, but this time he has passed fifty just once in eight innings – his very fine century at Lord’s. At Old Trafford, he fell twice to the pace of Mark Wood and throughout the series England have found ways to combat him better than any other time. But The Oval brings him back to a venue where he has a phenomenal record: an average of 91 and a century in his last outing against India early last month. Can he sign off Ashes cricket in the UK with a standout performance?
Team news: Same again for England; Murphy likely for Australia
England have confirmed an unchanged XI which means another outing for^( despite a series where he has had very limited impact. Chris Woakes has pulled up okay after his quad issue at Old Trafford and Wood will play three Tests in a row.
England 1 Zak Crawley, 2 Ben Duckett, 3 Moeen Ali, 4 Joe Root, 5 Harry Brook, 6 Ben Stokes (capt), 7 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 8 Chris Woakes, 9 Mark Wood, 10 Stuart Broad, 11 James Anderson
Australia (probable) 1 David Warner, 2 Usman Khawaja, 3 Marnus Labuschagne, 4 Steven Smith, 5 Travis Head, 6 Mitchell Marsh, 7 Alex Carey (wk), 8 Mitchell Starc, 9 Pat Cummins (capt), 10 Todd Murphy, 11 Josh Hazlewood
Pitch and conditions
Two days out, Pat Cummins thought the surface looked “pretty similar” to the one rolled out for the World Test Championship final against India. “Maybe not quite as firm as the final,” he added. “A little bit of grass. Not heaps. Looks like a pretty good wicket.” Eyes will again be on the weather forecast, although not to the same extent as Old Trafford. There are showers of varying degrees expected on Thursday, Saturday and Monday.
Stats and trivia
“Coming into this series I felt like six [Tests] was going to be really busy. But it’s all been good. Obviously there have been some challenges, some moments when you scratch your head, but I feel in a really good place physically and in terms of the captaincy. I feel like I’m learning new things every game, and it’s been manageable.”
Pat Cummins on the challenge of captaincy
“It’s a new game and things can play out differently. We just need to go out there and put the same amount of pressure onto Australia as we’ve been trying to throughout this series. I thought the way we did that at Old Trafford, Australia didn’t have an answer, particularly when we had the bat in hand. It was great viewing, watching the lads go about their business with the bat. But same old things: completely different game, and we’ll just have to start all over again.”
Ben Stokes on whether England can pick up from Old Trafford
Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo