December 29, 2021
By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – After a third Ashes surrender in as many series in Australia, England head to Sydney for a dead rubber fourth test with criticism ringing in their ears, a captain under siege and no easy fixes to a litany of problems.
The innings and 14-run shellacking at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Tuesday ensured England finish 2021 with the unenviable record of nine test losses in a calendar year.
Joe Root has now captained England to seven defeats out of eight tests in Australia, and also played in the dismal 5-0 whitewash in the 2013/14 series.
Root’s ability to get the best out of his team is in question, with former greats saying he may have lost the dressing room.
“Nobody would want to give up the captaincy, but it is not about Joe — it is about getting guys to perform better,” said former England batsman Geoffrey Boycott.
Root’s rallying cry in the lead-up to Melbourne appeared to fall on deaf ears, with his batsmen routed for 68 in the second innings after managing only 185 in the first.
In the wake of the Tuesday’s defeat, he was left to handle media duties alone on the MCG turf while his players made a bee-line for the refuge of the dressing room.
The 30-year-old Yorkshireman must now somehow try again to rally a squad that appears jaded.
Even paceman James Anderson, who bowled superbly in Melbourne, spoke of the tour as a slog rather than a privilege.
“Look, it’s been a tough tour so far. But it always is here, it’s never simple or plain sailing, there’s always stuff going on,” Anderson said after day two in Melbourne.
“I’ve got the opportunity to put an England shirt on, so I’m enjoying that.”
Former players and pundits have called for a “red ball re-set”, saying England’s administrators have allowed the longest format to stagnate at the expense of one-day and T20 cricket.
But no systemic changes can help Root turn around the team’s flaky batting before the Sydney test starts on Jan. 5.
None of England’s openers — Rory Burns, Haseeb Hameed and Zak Crawley — have shown themselves capable of handling Australia’s pace with the new ball, which has placed huge pressure on Root and the middle order.
“The worry is I’m not sure who’s next in for them,” former Australia captain Mark Taylor told the Nine Network.
With both Burns and middle order batsman Ollie Pope dumped after Adelaide, and wicketkeeper Jos Buttler in dire form, selectors have few bullets left to fire.
With the series lost they may opt to persist with Crawley and invest more time in Pope, or possibly give eight-test Essex batsman Dan Lawrence a chance.
England’s bowlers could at least leave Melbourne with their heads held high, having restricted Australia to 267.
The balance of England’s attack with seamers Anderson, Mark Wood and Ollie Robinson, and a much-improved performance from spinner Jack Leach, proved the most effective of the series so far and could see veteran Stuart Broad sidelined again.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford)