Four down, one to go. Ashes series have a special quality that can make them feel both endless and over in an instant. The rushed nature of the schedule this time around has exacerbated this. There have been more playing days than non-playing days listed since the series began in Brisbane and that’s before we get to the final match in Hobart, a city making its debut as an Ashes host on Friday.
The hecticness is reflected in how many players have fallen by the wayside or are walking wounded into Bellerive Oval. Scott Boland wants to play despite hurting his ribs while falling over in Sydney. Mitchell Starc wants to play despite a four-Test workload. Jonny Bairstow wants to play despite nearly losing a thumb to Pat Cummins. Ben Stokes wants to play despite a side strain that had him grimacing every time he hit the ball out of the SCG.
Why wouldn’t they? Boland has 14 wickets in two unexpected Tests at an antediluvian average of 8.64 – the lowest of any man to have taken more than four wickets or bowled more than 51 balls. Starc has only once before made it through a five-Test series and is eyeing another chance with the pink ball that has netted him 52 wickets. Bairstow made a comeback century in Sydney before playing the defining innings in the draw, while Stokes made twin 50s that were essential to England’s escape.
Those who will not appear include wicketkeeper Jos Buttler, back to England with a broken finger, and opening bowler Josh Hazlewood, who was supposed to miss one match with a side problem but will miss his fourth. Jhye Richardson may be available in his stead, but there has been muttering about a vague injury of his own since it pushed him out of the team after the second Test in Adelaide. Michael Neser could be the last Australia bowler standing.
Throw that all in the pot along with Ollie Pope being a substitute wicketkeeper in Sydney and Sam Billings appearing as a last-minute squad replacement for the spot, driving from the Gold Coast to Sydney, a span that would cover the length of Great Britain, and there is a sense that these teams are stumbling into Hobart with their suitcases bursting open and scatters of illegal fruit rolling across the airport floor.
Australia’s selection dilemmas are, at least, the good kind. Performance above expectation has been the norm for this series. Hazlewood has a right to come back as soon as he is fit as Australia’s premier new-ball weapon for years. Richardson has a right to come back after his match-winning five wickets on the tense last day in Adelaide. Boland has a right to keep his spot as the most simple yet effective wicket-hoover imaginable. They cannot all fit alongside a fast-bowling captain and a left-arm devastator.
Starc is a quandary machine. He is an athletic bowler who hurls plenty into his action, which can be undermined by even a small drop-off in energy. He said this week that he feels fine and fit, but there is no hiding that throughout his career his output has consistently dropped off in the fourth or fifth Test of a series. But he is also the most prolific bowler in day-night Tests, that stack of wickets coming from nine appearances. Thus he has to play. The smart play would have been to rest him in Sydney, giving him a break before returning with the rosé Kookaburra. But that bird has flown.
Then there is the small matter of Usman Khawaja. Australia’s selectors before the series locked themselves into the position that Travis Head was the future and Marcus Harris would be the opening bat all the way through. They cannot now stand by both of those things while also keeping Khawaja in the side. But after the rare feat of twin centuries in his one match of the series, there would be vast public discontent if Khawaja gets left out. Well-meaning plans don’t mean much to spectators who want to see the best players play.
Perhaps this contest on its own does not greatly matter. With the pandemic nipping at everyone’s heels, what matters is getting it done. That the teams have made it to the fifth Test in any form is a minor miracle. There are 11 players per side available for Hobart, with a roughly correct proportion being those who bowl and those who bat. Time to finish the rush and take a deep breath once we make it to the end.