A recurrence of the side strain that ruled Chris Woakes out of the Champions Trophy has left England with a weakened side going into the final Test of the Ashes series.
Woakes, who has carried a heavy workload in the series and was reported to have run 35 miles in the field during Australia’s innings in Perth, reported stiffness in training on Tuesday as England prepared for Thursday’s fifth Test.
He was sent for a scan on Wednesday but, even before the results were returned, the England management took the decision not to play him in Sydney with a view to not worsening an injury that kept him out of cricket for the best part of three months mid-way through 2017. They retain, at this stage, hopes of him featuring in the limited-overs series though that may prove optimistic.
“I think it is the same injury but, more than anything, we are trying to make sure he is not out for a significant period of time like he was throughout the summer,” Joe Root, England’s captain, explained. “He is obviously an integral part of both the white-ball and the Test team and it is important he doesn’t have another setback.”
Tom Curran is the beneficiary of Woakes’ injury. England had already decided to play both spinners, Moeen Ali and Mason Crane, on a surface they expect to offer some turn, with Crane pencilled in to come in to the side instead of Curran.
“Once we saw the surface it was a clear indication of the sort of team we wanted,” Root said. “It looks like it should give a bit of turn throughout. Generally does here anyway but it looks like it has definitely dried out in the last 24 hours. It should spin anyway. That is why we have gone with two spinners and a legspinner could be quite hard work late on in the game.”
But Woakes’ injury has seen Curran reprieved and leaves England with a side featuring just three seamers – two of whom looked somewhat jaded during training on Tuesday – and with a dangerously long tail.
Whereas, a few months ago, England could envisage playing a side with Ben Stokes (who has six Test hundreds) at No. 6, Jonny Bairstow (who has a Test batting average of 39.57) at No. 7, Moeen (who has five Test centuries) at No. 8 and Woakes (who has nine first-class centuries) at No. 9, they will now have Bairstow at No. 6, Moeen at No. 7, Curran (with a top first-class score of 60) at No. 8 and either Crane (who has never reached 30 in first-class cricket) or Stuart Broad (who has averaged 12 with the bat over the last two years in Test cricket) at No. 9. Against an Australia attack that could well include Mitchell Starc, who is renowned for his ability to dismantle the tail, that looks like a significant area of weakness.
“In Test cricket your top six have to do the bulk of the bating,” Root said, perhaps more in hope that expectation. “We’ve been fortunate in the past that we’ve had deep batting but ultimately your batters have to score your runs and your bowlers have to take your wickets.”
Craig Overton, who is recovering from a cracked rib, was not considered for selection, while Mark Wood is still not considered to be match-fit for Test cricket, particularly as part of a three-man seam attack. The fact that Jake Ball wasn’t recalled underlines how far his stock has fallen since the Brisbane Test.
It is not impossible Ball could yet win a last-minute reprieve, though. Both Broad and Anderson – who bowled 111 overs between them in Melbourne – looked stiff on Tuesday and trained only lightly on Wednesday. If either pulls up in warm-ups ahead of the match, Ball would be the obvious replacement.
Root admitted the burden on his two senior seamers could increase, but suggested they could cope with the load.
“With it being the last game of the tour, there’s no reason why they can’t just leave everything out on the field,” Root said. “They’ve played in five-match series before and they know what it’s like to come into the last game.
“That was the conversation that was had with the senior guys: making sure they’re fully aware that their overs might go up slightly if things don’t quite go our way with only having three seamers. They’re both up for the challenge, they’re both ready to go, and we wouldn’t have been the same team if they weren’t fit for this game.”
The game represents a fantastic opportunity for Crane, though. Making his Test debut on the same ground where he made history as a Sheffield Shield player a few months ago – he was New South Wales’ first overseas player since Imran Khan in 1984-85 – he has impressed the England camp both with his skill and his competitive approach.
“He’s a serious competitor with a really good mental game for Test cricket,” Root said. “The way he has conducted himself for the whole trip has been outstanding. I can see a big progression in his game and the way he went about those T20s in an England shirt shows he is not going to back down from any challenge. He has bowled well when he has had the opportunities on this trip.”
The game also presents another chance for Moeen to salvage something from a miserable tour. While he has impressed with neither bat nor ball on the trip, he had stored up a lot of goodwill over the last couple of years. Dropping him would also leave England needing either to bring in another batsman to cover for him, or extend their tail yet further.
“Moeen is a fine player,” Root said. “You look at the way he has played over the last couple of years. Of course he has had a tough couple of games here but you don’t just lose the ability he has overnight and I am fully confident on this surface he can put in some valuable performances for the side. My message to him has been to relax and try and enjoy his cricket. He is at his best when he is having fun.”
So, a 20-year-old legspinner, two 30-something seamers with miles on the clock, a long tail and an allrounder who looks horribly out of form: what could possibly go wrong? This has all the hallmarks of a tough few days for England.