England face one last chance to save the Ashes and themselves

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Joe Root’s side know they must respond in Melbourne  (PA)
Joe Root’s side know they must respond in Melbourne (PA)

The good news is for the first time in a decade, England head to the colosseum of the Melbourne Cricket Ground with the Ashes still live. The bad news is that is merely a quirk of the Covid-19 enforced schedule.

The worse news is that Australia are 2-0 up, and this looks far from a dangerous lead. It is a scoreline England have never turned around in an Ashes series, and as such has them scrabbling around the bottom of the bag for some kind of solution.

Changes are mooted in all departments. Zak Crawley is due to come in for one of Haseeb Hameed or Rory Burns in a bid to find a more robust opening stand. In four innings so far, the incumbent pair average just 20 balls together before the fall of the first wicket. Ollie Pope’s run of four, five and four after a promising first knock of 35 in Brisbane has him on the block, with Jonny Bairstow talked up in Australia as his replacement. Mark Wood and Jack Leach are also primed for action with Chris Woakes and one of James Anderson or Stuart Broad due to sit out for a second time this tour.

You can say this is the rearranging of the deckchairs on the Titanic, but it feels more like England are rushing to the back carriages on the Train To Busan. They might be able to barricade themselves in at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), which while improved from their bore draw in the 2017/18 series is still grand for batting. Even these tourists, as error-ridden as they are, have a chance at posting their first competitive total of the series. But that won’t guarantee survival.

Australia’s horde are charging through with a greater appetite for English flesh than ever before. The discourse around them leading up to this winter was that they were there to be got at. Not just in these Ashes but the preceding T20 World Cup. A proud nation poorly represented in the summer pastime they revere the most. Now, they are getting their flowers, as world champions of the shortest form and a re-emerging force in the longest one, with four batters and three bowlers in the top 10 of the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) recently updated rankings – of which only one, Josh Hazlewood, will not be in the XI come Boxing Day – and another win away from retaining the urn.

Indeed with Melbourne comes a chance to inflict some old school punishment. It used to be the mantra of grizzled Australian cricketers that to beat England was never enough. Scars need to be inflicted along the way. A 5-0 scoreline is still on the cards, as is the chance to take a few of the opposition down altogether.

None of that is news to anyone in the line of fire. Joe Root knows his own position as captain will be untenable if (once) this series is lost. Similarly, Chris Silverwood is all too aware a head coach rarely survives a chastening tour down under, especially off the back of what could be nine defeats out of 15 in 2021.

The rest are under no illusions. For those with age on their side, such as Hameed (24) and Pope (23), they can take some comfort knowing at the very least this can be framed as a learning experience. Defeats in Australia are something of a rite of passage. Others, such as Burns (31) and Woakes (32) could easily find themselves on their last overseas sojourn. That’s generally how underperformance in these parts pans out. Just ask the litany of cricketers whose careers were bookended by an Ashes, some of whom were discarded too early.

It is not much different for Broad and Anderson. In many ways, their thoughts matter that much more in the here and now. The desperation of the one who gets the nod to not go out like this; the anger of the one who sits it out knowing he will likely never experience a live Ashes in Australia again.

Whether its jobs, places or legacies on the line, they are all in this together. That much was clear following the stern debrief immediately after the defeat in Adelaide. Batters watched replays of their dismissals and all engaged in an honest conversation, featuring a number of speakers – not just Silverwood, Root and vice-captain Ben Stokes – and some strong words about the numerous areas of concern.

Rectifying them all in the middle of a series, not least with only six days between Tests, is far from ideal, though there has been willingness from those involved. Footage of Thursday’s practice at the MCG nets showed Hameed and Burns batting on one leg (their back leg) in a drill designed to hone better balance, particularly with head position. Hameed even had a go batting one-handed while doing so.

At best, it was remedial work. At worst, yet more meme-able fodder for the baying masses to heap onto this sorry bunch. Right out of the Patches O’Houlihan – from the movie Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story – school of thought that if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a dodgeball.

It showed both enthusiasm and desperation. Humility with a degree of pretentiousness. Brainstorming yet seemingly without a clue. But above all else, it shows this England side are up for trying anything to address this pitiful slide and keep the Ashes alive. Even if only for one more Test.

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