The Ashes are gone and the prospect of another whitewash looms for England. There will be a huge number of visiting supporters in Melbourne for the Boxing Day Test, so what do they need to do to bring some festive cheer?
Stick or twist
One of the most obvious differences between the sides has been the quality of the spin attacks. While Nathan Lyon has offered both control (he has an economy rate of 2.49 runs per over) and bite (he has 14 wickets at 26.07), Moeen Ali has been both innocuous (three wickets at 105.33) and relatively expensive (3.29 runs per over). As a result, England’s seamers have had to work even harder and the variation in England’s attack – which was minimal any way – has been reduced even further. And while, in the past, Moeen’s batting has compensated for his limitations as a bowler, in this series he is averaging 19.33 and struggling against both pace and spin.
There are mitigating factors. He suffering an injury – a cut to his spinning finger – in his opening spell of the first Test which clearly hampered his performance. But if he’s not fit to bowl, or not fit to bowl to the level required, it seems legitimate to ask questions about his place in the side.
England’s only other spin-bowling option on the tour is Mason Crane. The team management have insisted on several occasions that they would have no qualms about drafting the 20-year-old legspinner into the side but, as a modest batsman – though a brave one – his inclusion would further imbalance the side and lengthen the tail. His performance in the warm-up game in Perth – he was thrashed for 69 in nine overs during the second innings – might not have done him many favours, either. The example of Simon Kerrigan, whose career might be defined by his experience on Test debut, probably don’t help Crane’s case, either.
All of which begs the question: if Crane isn’t considered now, why was he brought on the tour? If it was just to gain experience, shouldn’t the selectors have also brought along a spinner who might have been deemed a viable alternative to Moeen? Had Samit Patel, with his batting ability, been included he would surely have had a great chance of playing in Melbourne.
Ultimately it remains likely that England will retain patience with Moeen. He has been a major part of the side for a few years now and, with his finger now healed, he should be capable of more than he has so far delivered. He needs a good finish to the series, though. Ashes campaigns tend to bookend careers and his is looking more vulnerable than most right now.
Find an edge
There has been a wearying familiarity to England’s recent overseas performances. They have now spent an average of 158 overs in the field in the opposition’s first innings of their last eight away Tests. That not only means that the opposition are amassing vast, match-defining totals – England have lost seven of those Tests – but it may also serve to tire and dispirit the batsmen before they respond. Could it even be a factor in Alastair Cook‘s decline?
To that end, they need to find a way to give their attack more wicket-taking edge. One option might be to draft Mark Wood into the side in Melbourne. While Wood’s most recent Test performances did little to suggest he had any more pace than Woakes, he does seem to be inching back to his best and produced a couple of sharp spells in the warm-up match in Richardson Park. Whether he is fit enough to get through a Test remains to be seen, but he will train with the squad on Friday and could well come into consideration if, as expected Craig Overton, is ruled out with a cracked rib. There are other options. Tom Curran could also come into the side – in place of Overton or Stuart Broad – and, while he is not blessed with a huge amount of pace, he has a variety of other skills that render him a valuable bowler. Mason Crane might, at a push, also be considered ahead of Moeen (see above).
The simplest change might be to give the new ball to Woakes ahead of Broad. With Broad failing to gain much lateral movement, it might make sense to allow Woakes, with his extra pace and ability to gain some swing, the chance to use the Kookaburra ball at its most helpful. Whatever they do, it is worth trying something a bit different. While they appear reluctant to stray from their ‘bowl dry and wait for mistakes’ policy, the evidence of the last year or so is that it isn’t working. And if they keep trying the same old tactic, they’ll probably end up with the same old result.
See Cook find form
Under normal circumstances, a batsman who had failed to reach 40 in their most recent 10 Test innings – and only once reached 25 – would be under severe pressure for their place. But Alastair Cook has not had a normal career and England are not about to give up on him. They are in desperate need of him finding some form, though. Only once in the series have he and Stoneman posted an opening partnership as high as 30 (they put on 53 together in Adelaide) and, as one of the two most experienced batsmen in the top six, it was always likely that, if England were to succeed on this trip, Cook would have to score heavily. It was probably always an optimistic plan, though. Now in his seventh Ashes series, Cook has averaged 40 in just one (he averaged 127.66 in 2010-11) and in five other attempts, including this one, he has failed to average 30. In light of such figures – plus the relative inexperience of Stoneman and the possibility of injuries – it seems baffling that the selectors didn’t include a reserve opening batsman in the squad.
There are few realistic alternatives, with Ben Foakes and Gary Ballance the other batsmen in the squad who could come into the side. While Liam Livingstone and Joe Clarke, from the Lions squad, have remained in Australia on holiday, the Lions opening batsmen have returned to the UK. Sam Robson, the Middlesex opener, is in Sydney though and could be called upon if deemed necessary.
Realistically, though, Cook has earned the right to a prolonged spell of patience and has shown previously that he can claw his way back from grim runs of form. This feels different, though, and you wonder if his form in the final two Tests of the series might define the next phase of his career. Aged 33 on Christmas Day, he is young enough to come again.
A look at the batting averages of the two sides tells the story. While Australia have six men averaging over 40 (and three over 70), England have just two. And while an Australian batsman has scored a century in each Test, England have only scored centuries in Perth. As Mark Stoneman put it: “In the first two games, we made 50s and they made 100s. And in Perth we made hundreds and they made double-hundreds.”
The mantra from the England team in recent days has been ‘if we can make 50, we can make 150 by repeating the behaviours that got us 50.’ There may be some truth in that, too, with Stoneman, Joe Root and James Vince all twice making half-centuries without going on to register a match-shaping innings. But such is the relentless nature of the Australia attack there have rarely been periods when England’s batsmen could feel they had weathered the storm. It just keeps coming at them.
One thing they have learned from the first three Tests, however, is the need to be ruthless when they do get themselves in. So whereas Steve Smith refused to be tempted into chasing wide or short balls during his marathon effort in Brisbane, Dawid Malan has twice been guilty of failing to fully capitalise on strong platforms. Malan has been England’s best player on the trip but, if they want to turn opportunities into victories, such foundations will have to be ruthlessly capitalised upon.
Work out if Broad is fit
While the England management have played down the extent of Stuart Broad’s left knee issue, he did have a scan ahead of the Perth Test and his performances are a concern. He has, at present, taken just five wickets at an average of 61.80 in the series while he looks as if he is batting too high at No. 10. While he hasn’t bowled badly, a drop in pace and absence of much lateral movement have rendered him without obvious weapons. His figures in Perth – none for 142 – were the worst of his career. So, is he hampered by injury or is this part of a general decline that has seen him fail to take a five-wicket haul since January 2016 or even a four-wicket haul this year? His Test bowling average in 2017 is 39.48. In the same period Anderson, bowling against the same batsmen on the same surfaces, is averaging 16.86.
If Broad is carrying any sort of injury, it might be best to rest him for the Melbourne Test at least and allow him to recover. He is only 31, after all. He should have a couple of good years left in him. But if there is no injury and this is the new normal, he faces a huge fight to regain the pace and movement that made him such a destructive bowler.