As Australia’s openers threatened to round off this madcap series with one last twist, English thoughts were already drifting ahead to life without Stuart Broad.
Indeed, for much of a fourth day on which David Warner and Usman Khawaja made untroubled progress to 135 without loss in pursuit of an imposing 384, it was easy to forget that Broad’s retirement had not kicked in the moment he made his announcement the night before.
But Broad was still out there, bowling decently enough in the six overs Ben Stokes allowed him, even if he didn’t add Warner for the 18th and final time.
Ten modest overs from Jimmy Anderson on his 41st birthday, however, did little to quell the nagging thought that the wrong half of England’s veteran new-ball partnership had called it a day.
Meanwhile, Chris Woakes and Mark Wood, both superb since they joined this series for the third Test at Headingley, are 34 and 33, though Woakes’s overseas record means he will not be in contention for the 2025-26 Ashes in any case. Why Wood wasn’t used earlier than the 33rd over may be another story for another day.
Ollie Robinson and Josh Tongue could lead England’s attack going into the next Ashes
Chris Woakes and Mark Wood have impressed but are 34 and 33 years old respectively
However this series finishes — with England chasing 10 wickets to make it 2-2, and Australia a further 249 runs to make it 3-1 — managing director Rob Key, coach Brendon McCullum and captain Ben Stokes will already have one eye on assembling an attack capable of winning in Australia in three winters’ time.
If this all sounds a bit Ashes- centric, it also makes cricketing sense. England’s next series starts in late January in India, where a spin-heavy attack including Jack Leach and maybe Rehan Ahmed will bear little relation to the line-up for Brisbane’s Gabba.
Next summer, the Test tourists will be West Indies and Sri Lanka, offering the selectors the perfect chance to plan for the future. So by the time India return to this country for five Tests in 2025, England’s fast-bowling ducks will need to be very much in a row.
Anderson will not be on the next plane to Australia and it will be a bonus if Wood makes the trip. As for Jofra Archer, England fans can but dream. Olly Stone, poor guy, is injured more often than not.
More realistically, the attack could be led by Ollie Robinson, assuming he can sort out the fitness issues that returned this summer, and Josh Tongue, who has been unlucky to play only one Ashes Test after a debut five-for against Ireland. At Lord’s, he removed Warner and Steve Smith twice each, and bowled Khawaja.
Rehan Ahmed and Jack Leach could play key parts in England’s next series in India
Some of England’s most famous wins in Australia have been based on genuinely quick bowling — Harold Larwood in the Bodyline series of 1932-33, Frank Tyson in 1954-55, John Snow in 1970-71.
Tongue can touch 90mph too, so the management’s task will be to ensure he isn’t turned into an 85mph seamer by the county grind.
Matthew Potts is pushing for a regular place, despite only one Test appearance this summer, against Ireland. England are also keeping an eye on his Durham team-mate Brydon Carse, who has already played nine one-day internationals, and spoke during the ODI series in the Netherlands last summer about his hopes of becoming an enforcer in the manner of Liam Plunkett.
Surrey’s Jamie Overton, whose Test debut against New Zealand at Headingley last summer was most notable for a match-turning innings of 97, is also in the mix, having moved ahead of his twin brother, Craig.
Then there are the fast bowlers who are yet to break into the inner sanctum. In particular, two at Surrey have caught the eye: Gus Atkinson and Tom Lawes.
Matthew Potts is pushing for a regular place, despite only one Test appearance this summer
Atkinson, 25, has 45 first-class wickets at 26. And, having added some pace in the last couple of years, he has generated whispered comparisons with Archer.
‘Quite a few people have said that to me,’ he told ESPNCricinfo recently. ‘A lot, actually.’
He has been open about his international ambitions, and England are keeping tabs. The 21-year-old Lawes has 48 wickets at 21, with a best of five for 22 against Kent at the Oval in May, when his victims included Zak Crawley, Ben Compton and Sam Billings.
As with Tongue, who will move from Worcestershire to Nottinghamshire at the end of the season, the challenge will be to protect Atkinson and Lawes from the moderating effects of the domestic game, where bowlers learn to manage themselves over the course of a long season rather than bowl hell for leather for the odd game here and there.
That has long been why England’s record in Australia is less good than Australia’s in England. Sunday’s display at the Oval was a reminder that it is never too late for a spot of long-term planning.