Five questions for England to resolve for the fifth and final Ashes Test

Who will keep wicket?

As if Jos Buttler’s Ashes series had not been painful enough, a campaign that included one particularly humiliating drop – to spare a century-bound Marnus Labuschagne in Adelaide – and a combined 45 runs across his last six innings has ended with a broken finger and an early flight home. Buttler averages 35.68 in 20 Tests as a specialist batter compared with 29.60 in 37 as wicketkeeper, including just 19.04 against Australia at home and away, leaving his long-term place in the team in doubt. First a new keeper has to be found to end the series. Jonny Bairstow, the obvious candidate, has his own injury to nurse, and though Ollie Pope did admirably as stand-in in Sydney Sam Billings is widely expected to make his Test debut. At 30 Billings has experience across all formats and also as a captain, but he has only played 11 first-class matches in the last three years, keeping wicket in just two of those. This will not be an easy audition.

Time to switch up the seamers again?

Given their struggles getting the Kookaburra to swing the only curveballs England have produced in Australia have been with their team selections. Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson watched from the sidelines as the opening Test was played on a green pitch, Mark Wood and Jack Leach missed the second, Broad was eased out again for the third. The series has exposed the English bowlers’ limitations but also their qualities, with Wood’s pace in particular discomfiting the Australians. He was hit on the foot in being trapped lbw by Pat Cummins in Sydney and is dealing with the resulting bruise, while Ben Stokes’ injury seems likely to keep the ball out of his hands in Hobart. Who knows what surprises England have in store, but Ollie Robinson and Chris Woakes, the unlikely new-ball pairing in the opening game, stand by for potential returns.

Another opening reshuffle

It is a sad fact that England’s most successful opener in the last five years – of those who have performed the role more than once – has been Jack Leach even though in one of his two attempts he was out for one. The tourists go into the final game of the series wondering whether Rory Burns, discarded after the first two matches, is less of a liability than Haseeb Hameed, who since the opening game has scored 6, 0, 0, 7, 6 and 9. Hameed, who spent five years in the international wilderness after his breakthrough in India in 2016, now seems likely to return there, with Burns and Dawid Malan the most obvious candidates to replace him. Zak Crawley’s place is secure after his 77 in Sydney. The 23-year-old does not always please the purists but it was a fine innings, impressive particularly against the short ball, and across the series only Travis Head (twice) has faced 50 or more balls with a superior strike rate to his 77. Expect more experimentation when England head to the West Indies in March.

Root’s batting

It is ridiculously premature to label this a problem given Root famously ended 2021 with 1,708 runs across the calendar year at an average of 61. But by the end of the year a cloud had formed on his horizon, and it was Scott Boland-shaped. It was the 32-year-old who, on his debut, ended the final innings of Root’s annus mirabilis in Melbourne, and since his half-century in the first knock of that game the England captain has faced 22 Boland deliveries, hit one scoring shot and been dismissed three times, twice caught in the slips and once by the wicketkeeper. Thankfully Boland is nursing sore ribs which were bruised when he fell in his follow-through in Sydney and might not be cleared to play in the final Test.

Can they end the series on something of a high?

It is possible to argue that given their lack of preparation England were always going to flop in their first few matches of the series, and rather than wallowing in that misery their fans should revel in Sydney’s signs that the giant is finally rousing. It is wise not to go overboard here, but despite his injury Stokes batted excellently in the fourth Test, as did the returning Bairstow, while Leach bowled better and to better fields. There is no hiding from England’s inferiority across the series, but with a strong performance in Hobart their failure will at least be given a sheen of respectability. And perhaps the series might end with Anderson adding another record to his growing collection: he is just 14 runs away from becoming the highest-scoring No 11 of all time.

 

 

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