The Ashes: Joe Root must learn lessons and make bold batting calls in Boxing Day Test with job under pressure

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The Ashes: Joe Root must learn lessons and make bold batting calls in Boxing Day Test with job under pressure
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Joe Root is on his third Ashes tour, and this is the first the urn will still be up for grabs when he tucks into his Christmas Day turkey.

The way things are going, it is hard to escape the conclusion that this is only the case because of the shape of the schedule, with three, not two, Tests after Christmas, rather than any improvement in England’s performance.

Early in another series that suddenly looks very long, England seem as stuffed as Root’s turkey. And while their preparation was hampered by Covid and rain, what will hurt most is that so many of their problems have been home-made.

Root and Chris Silverwood, the softly-spoken, submissive man taking on epic dual task of head coach and selection supremo, are under pressure for their jobs at one of the game’s great occasions, an Ashes Test on Boxing Day, here at the colossal MCG.

Root has been a maligned captain, and there are obvious shortcomings. He is respected by his team, is a good ambassador for the sport and has never shirked responsibility, whether with the bat or in decision-making. His captaincy should, based on history, be coming to a natural end.

A second crack at an away Ashes series has not been afforded to a captain for a century, and in Melbourne (where he turns 31 on day five) he will draw level with his predecessor, Sir Alastair Cook, on 59 Tests, the most for an England skipper. Four to five years has been the shelf life in the modern era.

The problem is viable alternatives. Ben Stokes is a possibility, but would he want to take it from his mate Root? That is before we consider that he is an all-rounder, playing all three formats as well as the IPL, who has had injury issues and mental health struggles severe enough to keep him out of the game this year. It would be a risk, although not as much as Rory Burns or Jos Buttler, whose careers could end on this tour.

The bad news for Silverwood is that while captains come from the available pool of players, the net can be thrown wider for coaches. There are loads of them, from all different countries, with all sorts of styles.

England captain Joe Root has made a number of mistakes during the Ashes series so far (Getty Images)
England captain Joe Root has made a number of mistakes during the Ashes series so far (Getty Images)

Whatever happens over the next few weeks, it feels like Silverwood’s remit is too broad for any individual, let alone one with his limitations. If England pull off the unthinkable and leave with the Ashes, it will be in spite of a situation where they have one head coach with responsibility for selection across all three formats, not because of it. Whether Silverwood remains involved or not, a red-white-ball split seems sensible, with separate figureheads working together on selection but apart on coaching.

Too often, Root and Silverwood have selected the wrong team. They picked four seamers on a sandpit in Ahmedabad and have so far chased their tails around Australia. They threw Jack Leach to the wolves in Brisbane, which they deemed enough to rule him out in Adelaide, where Ollie Robinson bowled spin and Root and Dawid Malan shared five wickets. James Anderson and Stuart Broad were held back for Adelaide, and Mark Wood for Melbourne. The Ashes do not wait.

If they make it a hat-trick of selection cock-ups in Melbourne, where the pitch is likely to be flat, the Ashes will be gone. Forget Sydney and Hobart — will Covid even allow the series to make it that far? — and pick your best team.

It is time for some big calls on the batting. Start at the top. Zak Crawley should come in for Haseeb Hameed, because Rory Burns at least seems to be heading in the right direction. There are members of the coaching staff who regretted dropping Crawley, despite his awful year, within days, as technical tightening immediately appeared in the nets. England have said for two years that he has the game for Australia; use him.

Zak Crawley should replace Haseeb Hameed for the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne (AFP via Getty Images)
Zak Crawley should replace Haseeb Hameed for the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne (AFP via Getty Images)

Ollie Pope looks frazzled, especially against Nathan Lyon, and — 22 Tests into his career — needs to be challenged more. Try Dan Lawrence, or Jonny Bairstow, perhaps as wicketkeeper-bat at No7, with Buttler shoved up to No6 as a specialist batter. Bairstow averages 37 as wicketkeeper, 27 when not. Buttler averages 31 as wicketkeeper, 36 when not. And he dropped three clangers in Adelaide.

And the bowlers? Forget the tail, and omit Chris Woakes. Wood returns, as does Leach — who has to be ready for Sydney — for Broad or Anderson. Those two are an iconic duo, but in their last 15 away Tests in tandem, dating back to January 2016, England have just two wins. When Woakes plays with them, it gets even worse. Anderson, Broad and Woakes have played seven away Tests together: six losses, one draw.

Root talks about repeating mistakes. That includes selection, and his lesson must be learned now.

My team for Melbourne:R Burns, Z Crawley, D Malan, J Root (c), B Stokes, J Buttler, J Bairstow, O Robinson, M Wood, J Leach, J Anderson

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