Hobbling England hope to end poor Ashes tour on a high in chilly Hobart

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<span>Photograph: Steve Bell/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Steve Bell/Getty Images

Hobart’s role on previous Ashes tours was often to put a chill into English cricketers during their final tour game before being plunged into the tropical heat of the Gabba in Queensland like lobsters being dropped into a pot of boiling water.

This time, however, after Perth ruled itself out through a hard Covid border, the Bellerive Oval hosts the Ashes denouement that begins on Friday. A boutique ground with views of the spectacular Derwent estuary, it has staged 13 Tests since its first in 1989 but none between Australia and England. Tim Paine, the local favourite who lost the Test captaincy before the series, will be heartbroken to miss this slice of history.

Related: England avoid Ashes whitewash after surviving in fourth Test with Australia

An extra twist, and one that may well see a few more cable-knits worn, is that the match is also a second day-night affair of the series in order to maintain the same primetime broadcast hours in the eastern states as had Western Australia not held firm on its seclusion. And if a reminder is needed, Australia’s record in pink-ball home Tests after their victory in Adelaide now reads played nine, won nine.

Whether an upset can follow England’s rearguard draw in Sydney or not, the 3-0 scoreline means their tour will struggle to look polished or rolled in glitter come the end. Chris Silverwood, the head coach, is back on site after recovering from Covid-19 and received loyal support from Joe Root on Wednesday but it remains to be seen how far this goes.

The status quo held after a 4-0 defeat four years ago but Root’s captaincy was in its infancy and Trevor Bayliss, Silverwood’s predecessor, was locked into the World Cup project. Even factoring in the pandemic, change feels far likelier this time.

Either way, England must harness plenty of what they did well last week even if they slightly hobble into the fifth Test with niggles, collective fatigue and one confirmed absence in the shape of Jos Buttler. His tour was ended with a broken left index finger and a bad one too, with the stomachs of teammates said to have turned when he had a pain-killing injection directly into the busted digit before bravely walking out to bat.

Sam Billings of England in action during an England Ashes squad nets session at Blundstone Arena on January 12, 2022 in Hobart, Australia.
Sam Billings is in line to make his England Test debut in the fifth Test. Photograph: Steve Bell/Getty Images

In comes Sam Billings behind the stumps for a surprise Test debut by dint of his being in the country playing Twenty20 cricket and cap No 700. The 30-year-old brings infectious energy and an orthodox batting technique but it is worth noting he has kept in just one first-class match for Kent in the past three years, the sum total of 95.3 overs across two innings versus Leicestershire at the end of the summer.

There is an expectation that, having stumped up a reported A$5m to host, Tasmania isn’t in the market for such a quick game either and so a pitch that was still green two days out is still tipped to start flat. As such, Billings may well see his endurance and concentration significantly tested, as well as the glovework that has been the subject of assiduous drills from James Foster, the designated coach on tour.

Australia Usman Khawaja, David Warner, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Travis Head, Cameron Green, Alex Carey (wk), Pat Cummins (c), Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Scott Boland

England Rory Burns, Zak Crawley, Dawid Malan, Joe Root (c), Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Sam Billings (wk), Chris Woakes, Ollie Robinson, Mark Wood, Stuart Broad

Haseeb Hameed appeared to be struggling with a rib issue at training on Wednesday but, more acutely, his run of six successive single figure scores means he needs withdrawing from the frontline regardless. Rory Burns now has the chance to prove he was dropped too soon and, surprisingly given the musical chairs of the past few years, this looks to be the first time he has opened alongside Zak Crawley in Test cricket.

Further injury clouds hung over Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow but their respective side and thumb problems were overcome so impressively in Sydney as to suggest they will likely go again. Root was still preaching caution here, however, stressing the need for players to be “fit to perform” not simply fit to take the field.

Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow of England walk off for the tea break during day five of the Fourth Test Match in the Ashes series between Australia and England at Sydney Cricket Ground on January 09, 2022 in Sydney,
Ben Stokes (left) and Jonny Bairstow are both set to play through the pain to help England’s cause. Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Stokes will definitely be unable to bowl, however, which, going by selections during the summer, may mean Jack Leach has to make way for an extra seamer. To do so after producing his best performance on tour – four wickets and a defiant 77-minute vigil with the bat – would rather sum up the left-arm spinner’s fortunes.

In terms of the seam attack, Mark Wood appears likely to play a third successive Test match, raising yet more eyebrows as to why he was rested in Adelaide after just 25.1 overs in Brisbane when the series was live. But two pairs of fresh legs may still come in and, if so, this means one of Jimmy Anderson or Stuart Broad has played their final Test match in Australia, even if both say they want to plough on to the Caribbean.

Chris Woakes and Ollie Robinson are the two likeliest to be considered and in the case of the latter it comes after a breather that might not have been required so early were he simply in better physical shape. Given Mitchell Starc bowls 10mph quicker and is about to play his fifth Test in a row, Root said he hopes Robinson – and English county seamers more generally – learn “serious lessons” about what is required at this level.

Australia’s headaches are, once again, good ones after Usman Khawaja surely secured his spot with those magical twin centuries at the SCG. If Travis Head returns at No 5 after his recent bout of Covid, Khawaja may replace Marcus Harris at opener. Ultimately only one team is feeling the heat in chilly Hobart.

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