Can England avoid another Ashes whitewash?
Before the series began, in a moment of weak, giddy over-confidence, I stated with some certainty that this series would not end 5-0 because neither were Australia good enough nor England bad enough for that to happen.
Half right. Australia aren’t good enough. But England might be bad enough.
Everything that England could reasonably have expected to go their way has gone their way. They have won the toss in both Tests. The weather has been positively English. The Gabba pitch was slow for three days. The Adelaide pitch never had the pace or bounce the Aussie propaganda suggested. England got to bowl with a new pink ball under floodlights. It rained when they were set to face it.
They have lost by 10 wickets and 120 runs.
Now they head to the WACA for their traditional ritual slaughter and the spectre of another whitewash looms.
After failing miserably in favourable conditions in the first two Tests, it’s no stretch to assume things are about to get worse, so it’s all eyes on Melbourne and Sydney for Operation: FFS Not Again.
There is no obvious fix for England. There is nobody currently outside the team who can come in and improve it. England are considering playing their Mark Wood joker, but 2015 Mark Wood is long gone. After his injuries he’s no quicker than Woakes or Anderson these days, and with none of their guile. Liam Plunkett can’t even get in the Yorkshire four-day side.
No, England are stuck with what they have and will have to make the best of it. The Ashes are gone, humiliation likely awaits them in Perth; the tour is already reduced to damage-limitation. Can they salvage something, anything from the last two Tests?
For all the laments about England’s lack of Genuine Pace, the absence of a legitimate second spinner is arguably the biggest problem. Moeen Ali, struggling with at least one and possibly two debilitating injuries, is offering nothing. But he’s one of the best seven batsmen available to England, so he may as well stay in the side.
The pace bowling attack is inadequate for Perth, but too late to worry about that now. Broad and Anderson aren’t going anywhere, while Chris Woakes and Craig Overton would be hard done by to lose their places to unproven or unready replacements.
And then there’s the batting…
James Vince will never be a Test number three, but if Joe Root won’t do it then he’s stuck there impulsively playing his Russian Roulette cover-drive until the inevitable happens.
Mark Stoneman is doing a grand job in the Michael Carberry role, never looking out of place at this level but never actually making significant runs.
Alastair Cook is in 2006/7, 2009, 2013, 2013/14 and 2015 mode rather than 2010/11. Joe Root is looking in his dodgiest form since 2013/14 but still by a distance England’s best player.
Dawid Malan has been okay, and seems to be attracting a higher proportion of unplayable deliveries than usual.
The one change England can and surely must make, though, concerns Jonny Bairstow. He is better than every member of England’s top six bar Root and cannot continue at number seven.
England’s reasons for liking Bairstow at seven are sound, but represent a quite ludicrous luxury given the travails of those batting above him.
He is skilled at batting with the tail. He manoeuvres the ball cleverly, he is greased lightning between the wickets and can give it a whack with the best of them when all else fails.
But none of that is any good if he’s always batting at 200-5 and none of the remaining batsmen can cope with the pace and fire of Australia’s quicks. With England’s top six repeating the same mistakes, “Let them bat seven” is no solution.
Bairstow to five, Malan to six and Moeen Ali to seven is surely the least worst option England currently have. It may be rearranging the deckchairs after the iceberg’s been hit, but it represents both the least and most England can do.
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