If ever there was a measure of how far sights had fallen on this tour it was to be found in the way that a draw at Melbourne, on a pitch so batsmen friendly it was rated as poor by the ICC, was treated as a triumph by some. 3-0 down, a series and the Ashes gone, but apparently England ended the year well. Perhaps in some ways that’s true, when you’ve lost the last seven away Tests and the last eight away Ashes Tests anything better than that is something to take note of, in the same way that just because the ship has gone down doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate the piece of wreckage to which you’re clinging. Yet denying the disaster that this tour has been remains as pathetic as it was after the Indian tour. In that case, few expected England to come out on top, but being battered repeatedly and insisting that it was nothing other than the expected – all is well, don’t worry – was a low point for a group of cricket journalists who haven’t been afraid to plumb the depths in recent years.
Here too, the same has happened. Cook’s unquestionably excellent innings at the MCG doesn’t mean Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth didn’t happen, and pretending that it does invites the contempt it deserves, and not just from the Australians either. Claiming that it is irrelevant because it’s a dead rubber is nonsensical, ignoring the 3-0 scoreline and a series thrashing is preposterous. It counts. Of course it counts, it always did. But it also always had a slight note against it. Indeed, the England coaching staff clearly didn’t get the memo, for when Trevor Bayliss was asked about selection for the final Test, he said “with the series lost it gives us the opportunity to look at some different people”. Of course, this shouldn’t need saying, as it is blindingly obvious to anyone paying even a cursory degree of attention, but apparently it does, even though England on the other side of the equation did exactly the same thing when selecting Woakes and Kerrigan at the Oval in 2013. Writing on cricket is a matter of opinion, but refusing to acknowledge reality in favour of hagiography remains as intellectually dishonest as ever, particularly given the same people were talking about retirement precisely one Test earlier. Even allowing for finally having something positive to write about, it went much too far. England played better at Melbourne, the seamers in the first innings were very good, Cook absolutely batted beautifully, while Australia probably lost some intensity, but still saved the match with something to spare. Fine. It was better, give Cook plenty of credit. Move on and don’t overdo it.
Thus, for this game Mason Crane will make his debut. The SCG pitch is expected to offer some assistance for spinners (interestingly, Nathan Lyon doesn’t have as good a record there as the traditional expectation for turn might suggest) and as a result, Moeen Ali is expected to keep his place. He hasn’t had a good tour, either with ball or bat, and so this represents something of a reprieve given the initial expectation it might be a straight swap. Much comment has been made about him not getting overspin, which does raise a few questions: Firstly whether this is something he’s always had a problem with – the lack of any discussion prior to this tour suggests not – and if it’s just in Australia, why that might be. He’s clearly not been fit for much of it, with talk of both side strains and finger damage throughout. If that is the reason why, then England have done him a serious disservice by repeatedly playing him, and then seeing him get a kicking for not performing. The player narrative shifts from week to week, with no reference to what has been said before, so perhaps the injury claims were overblown instead and he really has just been poor, but it would be nice to once in a while have some degree of consistency in appraisal without the need for excuses first, then a hatchet job.
Crane himself represents something of an unknown quantity at this level. His first class bowling average is nothing to write home about, but he’s also young and promising. The biggest fear with him has to be that if he doesn’t have an exceptional time of it, he’ll join the list of those brought in for the final dead rubber of a series (oh, that again) and then never heard about again. England’s management of leg spinners who fail to be the next Shane Warne doesn’t engender too much confidence. Maybe it’ll be different this time.
Chris Woakes misses out, having suffered a recurrence of his side injury. England are saying that it’s precautionary, and hope that he’ll be fit for the ODI series following the Tests, but scepticism about their injury management is probably second only to scepticism about their selection strategy. Side strains don’t tend to clear up quickly; it seems hopeful to say the least that it will properly heal in such a short time, and risky to then bowl him if it is a problem so soon after being out for so long with the same issue.
Woakes’ absence means that Tom Curran will play, saving him from the possibility of being a one cap wonder, while Jake Ball is nowhere to be seen in the discussions, except to point out that he’s nowhere to be seen.
This will leave England with a line up that requires the top order to get all the runs, for after Jonny Bairstow at six will come a hideously out of form Moeen and a tail that might be nowhere near as abysmal as the legendary Caddick, Giddins, Mulally Tufnell one, but does have the particular distinction of being just as long. It will be fascinating to see if Cook’s technical work continues here, while Root and Malan too will need to have good Tests.
For Australia it’s easy – Mitchell Starc should return in place of Jackson Bird, although there are suggestions he’ll be rested for the ODI series in preparation for the South Africa Tests, an illustration of their priorities if nothing else. They have their own batting issues in the top order, but also have Steve Smith, who has been imperious for so long it has masked the other problems. How to get him out remains a conundrum that has proved beyond England and might well be the single biggest difference between the sides.
The surface is by all accounts well grassed, and should provide a better contest between bat and ball than last time out. The trouble is, that looks like very good news for Australia and very bad news for England. English optimism is in short supply, but always remember Tom Harrison’s soothing words:
“It’s a pity that we’re not in a position to take the Urn home with us, but there’s a lot more to play for over the course of this winter. The health of the game is more than about Ashes series overseas. This is not the moment for kneejerk reactions or rash decisions in respect of performance.
“We have a plan. We’re making progress on that plan. England have been very competitive for large parts of the Ashes series. Those marginal periods of play where you can turn a game, we haven’t been able to do it which has been the difference between the teams in each of the Test matches.
“We understand that it’s extremely disappointing. But this team will be learning from every experience they have on the field and we’ve got a lot more to play for over the course of the one-dayers and the Test series in New Zealand.”
The lack of any critical coverage of what he has said is quite simply remarkable.