England Test captain Joe Root would be hoping that the four changes he has effected in the playing XI on the eve of the Boxing Day Test help his side claw back and make a fresh bid to regain the urn, which looks as good as lost after the humiliation in the first two Ashes games.
The tourists lost the opening Test at The Gabba by nine wickets, which was followed by a 275-run humiliation at the Adelaide Oval. And, going into the traditional Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) from December 26, Root’s men are staring down the barrel of losing the series within 14 days of play.
Despite the efforts put in by Root and No.3 batter Dawid Malan, runs have been scarce for the tourists, giving their bowlers little chance to claw things back.
With Pat Cummins returning to lead Australia after a Covid-enforced quarantine break, England will once again be at the mercy of a potent bowling attack that will have the likes of the captain himself, Mitchell Starc, Test debutant Scott Boland, Cameron Green and spinner Nathan Lyon.
England will hope to emulate their batting form from the 2017 Boxing Day Test if they are to nurture any hopes of denying a series-deciding result to the hosts.
With the ball, there have been glimpses of quality, even if tactics and execution have been wayward. Spoiled by poor discipline and dropped chances, the likes of Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Ollie Robinson have provided highlights despite the disappointing start.
On the Australian side, they’ll be the favourites to win at the MCG and retain the Ashes, with only a historically docile MCG wicket seemingly in their way. The Ashes Test four years ago saw the now-retired Alastair Cook smash an unbeaten 244 across Day 2 and 3. Either side of Cook’s fifth and final Test double-ton, David Warner and Steve Smith also made hundreds, with the match ending in a tame draw.
After missing the Adelaide Test, Cummins will return as captain, taking back the reins from Smith, who will move back into the vice-captain’s role.
Smith with the bat looked in good touch even with the burden of captaincy, making 93 in the first innings in Adelaide, complementing the work of David Warner (95) and Marnus Labuschagne (103), who also made a half-century in the second innings. The performance moved Labuschagne to the ICC Test No.1 ranking for batting.
England pushed the Adelaide Test into the final session of Day 5, though the late finish belied Australia’s dominance, with the hosts winning by 275 runs after not enforcing the follow-on.
Labuschagne is almost in his own world at the moment. The fifth-fastest player to 2,000 Test runs, the right-hander provides stability at No.3 in the batting order, blunting the new-ball threat and moving up the gears through shots around the wicket with compact technique.
With England having no effective plan to counter the 27-year-old — and the MCG pitch likely to favour batters again — Labuschagne could well continue to pile on the runs.
The tourists’ hopes lie in Root and No. 3 in their side Malan, who has been a strong performer in what has been a bleak series for his side so far. Malan has rebuilt alongside his skipper in two century stands across the first two matches, with individual scores of 82 and 80 in the partnerships.
With England bringing in Zak Crawley and Jonny Bairstow to solidify their batting, the tourists’ focus is completely on the likely batting-friendly wicket to try and gather some runs and make a push for victory, and then go all out in the remaining two Tests — at the SCG and Hobart.
Australia XI: David Warner, Marcus Harris, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Travis Head, Cameron Green, Alex Carey (wk), Pat Cummins (c), Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon and Scott Boland.
England XI: Haseeb Hameed, Zak Crawley, Dawid Malan, Joe Root (c), Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler (wk), Mark Wood, Ollie Robinson, Jack Leach and James Anderson.