An Ashes tour that looked, at one time, like it may never start turned into one that felt like it might never end.
Almost nothing has been certain for England before or during their visit, except that when you have thought a low ebb had been plumbed, it has been wise not to settle on it for too long, because another would come along promptly.
To sum up that uncertainty, the series concludes over the next five days with a pink ball, not a red one as originally scheduled, at a venue almost 2,000 miles from the planned host. Just about the only similarity between Hobart’s Bellerive Oval, a boutiquey beauty with sea views, and Perth’s Optus Stadium, an ultra-modern bowl, is that neither has hosted an Ashes Test before.
But by the time the teams crossed the Bass Strait to Tasmania this week, the sting had been taken out of the series’ tail by England’s tail’s brave rearguard in Sydney, averting a whitewash that at one stage felt inevitable. That had been the most competitive game yet, with England taking their first five-wicket haul and scoring their first hundred, then finding their way out of a hole.
England’s response to Sydney has been to pointedly not get carried away with a draw. “A small step” is how Joe Root keeps describing it. Australia are disappointed, but know they dominated England again. Their reaction has generally been, “how good is Test cricket?”. You could hardly blame them for forgetting what a contest feels like.
England will field a team, featuring four and perhaps five changes, that will be typical of recent Fifth Ashes Tests in Australia, where four debuts have been handed out on the last two tours; three of those four remain one-cap wonders. Sam Billings, making his debut behind the stumps, will hope his stay is rather longer.
England will likely field a team featuring an all-rounder with a side strain playing as a batter (Ben Stokes), an opener who was dropped and criticised by the batting coach two games ago (Rory Burns), but no spinner. The pitch is green and the ground smaller than normal, so perhaps Jack Leach should consider this a good one to miss. It seems unlikely that they will risk playing Jonny Bairstow as a batter with a cracked thumb.
If this all sounds a little low on energy, it is. But that does not mean this is a week without purpose for England.
There are new beginnings, especially for Billings, but also for Burns and Zak Crawley, who have never opened together but might just be England’s best duo at the top of the order, inside or outside the squad. England’s next Test is in Barbados in less than two months, and very few players are certain of their places. An opportunity knocks in Hobart.
There are also chapters closing. For a host of players, this is a final shot at victory on Australian soil, something England have not achieved — or even looked like achieving — for 11 years now. Many, and let’s start with Jimmy Anderson (who has pulled up sore this week) and Stuart Broad, will not be back again.
Another of those who will most probably not be back is Mark Wood. He turned 32 yesterday and will play his third successive Test in a series for the first time since the 2015 Ashes. He admitted today that not even he trusted his body to get through a workload like that. Whatever happens here, he will be one of the few tourists to emerge with credit.
Wood has just eight wickets, and his average is north of 37. He has been worth so much more than that, though. Five of those wickets have been batters ranked in the top seven of the ICC’s rankings, with Marnus Labuschagne scalped three times since getting to No1. Wood is the only bowler to consistently trouble Australia’s best and is Root’s go-to guy.
“I have kept my paces up but not got the wickets I wanted,” Wood said. “It’s all well and good playing games, but it’s wins and wickets I’m after. I have another chance in this game to put something in the right column at the end.”
It is that spirit that has set Wood apart.