Ashes: England are battered and bruised but they have to stagger on
England are battered and bruised with Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow all in doubt due to injury for the final Ashes Test… but they have to stagger on as Joe Root faces up to big change for pink-ball match in Tasmania
- The tourists are set to be without both Ben Stokes and wicketkeeper Jos Buttler
- Absence of two of England’s most exciting hitters leaves middle-order chasm
- Jonny Bairstow is another potential absentee following a right thumb injury
- Very best-case scenario for Stokes is to play in Tasmania as a specialist batsman
England will head to Hobart on Monday facing a string of tough decisions as they try to work out how to manage their walking wounded through the last leg of a traumatic Ashes.
The tourists are set to be without both vice-captain Ben Stokes and wicketkeeper Jos Buttler for the floodlit pink-ball match in Tasmania.
Jonny Bairstow is another potential absentee, as England try to assess the extent of the damage to his right thumb after he was hit by Pat Cummings during his pugnacious first-innings hundred at Sydney.
Jonny Bairstow (left) and Ben Stokes (R) are struggling with injuries ahead of final Ashes Test
England are also set to be without Jos Buttler for the floodlit pink-ball match in Tasmania
All three had scans on Friday night, with Stokes nursing a tight left side sustained while bowling a spell of bouncers on the second morning and Buttler badly injuring his left index finger in the field later that day.
On paper, the absence of two of England’s most exciting hitters leaves a chasm in their middle order. But both have been disappointingly peripheral in a series which appeared to offer Stokes the chance to leave his mark on Australian soil, after missing the 2017-18 tour in the aftermath of his infamous night out in Bristol, and Buttler the opportunity to prove he has the appetite to play all three formats.
With a day of the Sydney Test to go, Stokes had averaged 23 with the bat and 71 with the ball, while Buttler had 96 runs at 16 after his tame first-innings duck, prompting further speculation that England will use the three-match tour of the Caribbean in March to draw a line under his Test career and hand the gloves to Ben Foakes.
The very best-case scenario for Stokes is to play in Tasmania as a specialist batsman, having batted through the pain to make 66 in England’s first innings, though even that may be a long shot.
Buttler did not take the field on the fourth day, allowing Ollie Pope to take the gloves
It leaves Joe Root with the prospect of big chance in Hobart in final leg of disastrous tour
Buttler, meanwhile, did not take the field on the fourth day, allowing Ollie Pope to take the gloves, as he did two winters ago against New Zealand at Hamilton after Buttler injured himself in the gym.
Pope performed well, taking four catches to equal the world record for a substitute fielder in a Test innings and giving England a plausible alternative to Sam Billings, who is in line for a first cap after appearing in 58 white-ball internationals stretching back six years.
On Friday night, Billings, who has been starring in the Big Bash League for Sydney Thunder, was 90 minutes away from boarding a flight to London en route to England’s T20 series in Barbados when he received an SOS call to stay put. Whether he or Pope keep wicket in the final Test, both are likely to feature in the XI.
Bairstow will be trying to convince medics he can resume his own wicketkeeping career, though the best he can realistically hope for is to play as a batsman. And that will give him the chance to convince the selectors that his 113 here represents the start of a new phase of his career, rather than the dead-cat bounce of a 32-year-old whose time is up.
Sam Billings is in line for a first Test cap after appearing in 58 white-ball internationals
Either way, by scoring England’s first century of the Ashes, he has laid down a marker for a place on the Caribbean tour.
Whether England need to fill two spaces or three at Hobart, the emergency call-up of Billings and the presence behind the stumps of Pope raise further questions about the decision to send Foakes home after England Lions finished their tour of Australia last month.
Also on that trip was Gloucestershire’s James Bracey, who kept wicket during the two-Test home series against New Zealand in the summer and ended the Lions trip with a century against Australia A in Brisbane.
No matter who takes the gloves, Pope, who fared no worse than Buttler has this series, looks ready to slot back into the middle order, having lost his place to Bairstow at Melbourne.
Dan Lawrence is another option at Hobart, not least because he also offers part-time spin
Dan Lawrence, who has carried the drinks all tour, is another option, not least because he also offers part-time spin.
Since Jack Leach has managed just six wickets at 53 and gone at nearly 4.5 an over, England may decide they can strengthen the batting while barely weakening the bowling — especially with Joe Root around to bowl off-breaks. Ollie Robinson is likely to return to the seam attack, though the question of who he replaces will depend on the pitch.
Not for the first time, Australian conditions proved beyond England’s attack on the fourth day, as Usman Khawaja became the third player after Doug Walters and Ricky Ponting to score two hundreds in a Sydney Test. It completed a remarkable comeback for a player ignored by Australia since August 2019.
If his second-innings century was made in less taxing circumstances than his first, it ticked similar boxes: elegant, unruffled and occasionally violent, especially on the pull, it was the work of a player determined to make up for lost time.
Australia’s selectors must decide whether to give centurion Usman Khawaja another Test
Australia’s selectors must now decide whether to give Khawaja another Test at Hobart. Travis Head, who was his team’s leading run-scorer in this series before a positive Covid test ruled him out of this game, is available again. And the only chance of playing him and Khawaja would appear to involve dropping opener Marcus Harris.
He made 27 on the fourth day before becoming the first of four wickets for Leach, but a fifth-wicket stand of 179 between Khawaja and Cameron Green, who made 75, turned a score of 86 for four into a position of dominance.
Set 388, England reached 30 without loss at stumps, but have another mountain to climb if they were to avert the threat of a 5-0 whitewash.
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