This Ashes series is dead, but careers and credibility are at stake

When even “Mr 5-0” himself, Glenn McGrath, describes the gulf in class between England and Australia as “disheartening” you know this Ashes series badly needs a contest in Sydney. The narrative has to change – and not just for the credibility of Ashes series as five-match contests in Australia. It will prove whether the outpouring of support for Joe Root from his teammates is just a lot of well-meaning noise for a nice guy, or has some truth to it.

How England play over the next five days will have personal ramifications, too, for Sydney has been the last staging post for many. Just ask Kevin Pietersen and Andy Flower, or even Andy Caddick, who took his only 10-wicket haul in England’s win at the SCG in 2002-03, but was never picked again.

The pressure is on England ahead of the fourth Test.Credit:Getty Images

Go back almost 90 years and Harold Larwood played his last Test in Sydney, becoming the scapegoat of all scapegoats.

James Anderson and Stuart Broad know one of them could be the fall guy this time, to protect a captain who has made far more mistakes than them on this trip.

Just sacking head coach Chris Silverwood is unlikely to be enough. Broad can see the writing on the wall after being left out for Test matches on pitches in Brisbane and Melbourne that suited his style.

When he did play in Adelaide, the captain criticised the lengths he bowled. Anderson is different and bowled superbly in Melbourne to give England a fighting chance.

If both play here, it could well be the last time they are seen together in an England side, unless they roll back some magic on a green-tinged pitch and damp week in Sydney. Steve Smith, the Australia vice-captain, and batsman David Warner have both expressed surprise that Broad has been absent.

But it is not just Broad and Anderson. And, really, the bowling has not been the problem.

England are averaging just 18.75 per wicket in this series, the lowest since 1887 for an Ashes in Australia. The top six is the worst in living memory to come to Australia and certainly the most under-prepared.

History proves that the only way to win in Australia is by playing lots of state games against decent opposition. The first question the late Ray Illingworth asked when I interviewed him recently was how many warm-up games Root was planning for his players?

Under-fire skipper Joe Root has public support from teammates.Credit:Getty Images

When the answer was none, he was not happy. “What? Really? Look, if you don’t get your batsmen in form for the first Test, you are in big, big trouble,” he said.

Jonny Bairstow looks likely to be given another match ahead of a much younger rival, Ollie Pope, but could be playing his last Test because, if they lose, why persevere? Jos Buttler has reiterated his love for Test cricket, but still struggles to bat for the situation and his keeping remains a major concern. Ben Foakes is in the wings for the West Indies tour.

Root talks about wanting to carry on, and has universal support from his teammates.

He becomes the first man to captain England 60 times in this game and sources insist he has the appetite to continue and oversee the rebuilding, but another bad week, and surely he cannot do so.

“All I ever want to do is try to get the best out of the group, to see us perform and play at a level everyone back home is proud of,” Root said.

“It’s hurt me deeply that we’ve not managed to do that on this trip, and I’m desperate for us to put in those performances.

“I really care about the role, and it would be nice to finish this tour in a much better way.”

He has been in constant touch with Silverwood, who is isolating and feeling helpless at a time when his boss, Ashley Giles, is in Sydney talking to people about what has gone wrong.

Australia have been fresher and renewed under their new captain, Pat Cummins. Every selection has come off, and all players have contributed at some point. Justin Langer looks certain to leave his job as coach despite winning a World Cup and Ashes, yet it is barely an issue, such is the confidence in the future under Cummins.

Usman Khawaja plays for Travis Head due to Head’s COVID-19 diagnosis and there had been talk that Scott Boland could find his fairy tale on hold, despite his 6-7 in Melbourne, edged out by Jhye Richardson’s pace. Though Boland has kept his place, how England would like such luxury.

They are likely to pick the same top six as Melbourne, despite the 68 all out in the second innings, and Broad or Chris Woakes for Ollie Robinson may be the only change.

Television ratings on Foxtel and Seven have broken records.

Crowds of 35,000 are expected at the SCG despite the city’s COVID-19 crisis, and the fifth Test in Hobart will be the biggest sporting event the city has hosted.

“The Ashes is so important to Australia and England cricket and fans,” McGrath, who famously always predicts a 5-0 Australia victory, said in Melbourne. “They want to see a good, close contest.”

Sydney is probably too soon to erase the memory of Melbourne, especially given the nature of preparations, with few coaches on the ground to help players used to not thinking for themselves anymore.

But just someone scoring a hundred or taking five wickets would be a start.

The Telegraph, London

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