England’s battle-weary cricketers begin the fifth test in Hobart today, having escaped Sydney without defeat. With a rare ray of light permeating the gloom of this nightmare Ashes campaign.
Now that they can leave all talk of a 5-0 whitewash behind them, they can now focus on a day-night Test in Hobart where they will feel that conditions will be in their favour, and their demons ripe to be exorcised.
What they showed in Sydney was the good old English stiff upper lip; a sense of fight that had seemed to desert them in Melbourne the week before. Their tendency to bowl a more English length than the Australian conditions demanded on the rain-shortened opening two days hinted at more carnage to come, but as the match progressed England gained strength from the obduracy they showed to dig themselves out of the trench that they had created.
The fightback began after the visitors’ Melbourne nemesis Scott Boland combined with Michell Starc and Cameron Green to reduce their total to a perilous 36 for four. What will make the English management happiest is that, for the first time this summer, the recovery was led by personnel that were not Joe Root and Dawid Malan.
Even in the early skirmishes, Zak Crawley suggested that he was capable of far more than his Melbourne output – more on him later. But after the only two batsmen that had shown any previous reliability had succumbed to the relentlessness of the Australian onslaught, there were fears that even the tally of 68 in the second innings of the third test may not be eclipsed.
Enter Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow. Stokes was hampered by a side strain – here he seemed intent on easing his own pain by inflicting it on the ball as he sent it scudding to the boundary nine times and over it once. His 66 was the first indication this tour of the match-winning potential that Australia had previously seen and currently feared.
His stay was terminated by an excellent quicker, straighter ball from Nathan Lyon that trapped him on the crease, but Bairstow ground on to 113, finding a willing ally in Mark Wood. Wood has shown in past outings that he can hit hard and often, and this he did here. The backward square leg boundary was peppered in an act of defiance calculated to inform Australia that he was part of the New England, and he would not be stood over.
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We have heard numerous explanations for the dismal showing in Australia this summer; the preparation curtailed by rain, the County Championship wickets not being conducive to developing test match batsmen, the coronavirus disrupting the schedule leading to additional fatigue, the English Duke’s ball not preparing its players for the demands of the Australian Kookaburra. I could go on…
No, the challenge leading into the fifth test and up until the Ashes series in England in 2023 is to produce the fight that was shown in Sydney on a much more regular basis than one match in four. Crawley showed the way in the second innings in Sydney.
England has been crying out for a top-order batsman that could counter punch and give the opposition attack something to think about rather than which slip fielder would catch the inevitable edge.
Here Crawley hit 77 of England’s first 96 runs and showed the attacking intent that others in the side followed to take the match right to the very finish. It remains to be seen what happens from here.
English cricket supporters have become used to false dawns, and there is no guarantee that the side will not slip into old habits before the next clash with the old enemy in eighteen months’ time. But for all the dire predictions that existed merely a week ago, there have developed enough green shoots to anticipate a side in full bloom come mid-summer.
Management, development, and selection will all be vital, certainly, but there is as much cause for optimism as there is for pessimism for followers of the Three Lions.
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