One of the most chaotic Ashes tours in history reaches its conclusion in the next few days – but the uncertainty surrounding English cricket is far from over.
In contrast to the Derwent River that forms a shimmering backdrop to Hobart’s Bellerive Oval, choppy waters lie in wait for Joe Root’s England, with not many players certain of their long-term place, and speculation continuing to dog the future of Chris Silverwood.
Root’s endorsement of him ahead of a game that doubles up as the final Test and Tasmania’s Ashes debut might have been nothing more than the humane response of a captain unwilling to blame his coach for Australia’s 3-0 lead – especially since Silverwood has just emerged from the quarantine that meant he could follow the tense draw at Sydney only on TV.
The Blundstone Arena in Hobart is poised to host the fifth and final Ashes Test
Doubts remain over the future of Joe Root (left) as captain and coach Chris Silverwood (right)
But no one’s job is safe after the thrashings in Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne – not Silverwood’s, not managing director Ashley Giles’s, not even Root’s, though it is hard to see a feasible alternative.
Even so, the end of the series is upon us, bringing with it a strange question: who exactly should the players be trying to impress in the days ahead?
Motivation may have to come from other sources, both grimly familiar at this stage of an Ashes trip: pride in personal performance, and pride in the badge, which has become the tour mantra.
Of the eight series defeats England have suffered here since 1990-91, a margin of 3-1 would equal their least-heaviest. That is the barrel whose bottom they are now scraping.
Veterans Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad are unlikely to be touring Australia in four years
The team’s managing dirctor Ashley Giles is also in the firing line after this horror tour
Fifth Ashes Test possible teams
England: 1 Rory Burns, 2 Zak Crawley, 3 Dawid Malan, 4 Joe Root (capt), 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Jonny Bairstow, 7 Sam Billings (wkt), 8 Chris Woakes, 9 Mark Wood, 10 Ollie Robinson, 11 Stuart Broad.
Australia: 1 David Warner, 2 Usman Khawaja, 3 Marnus Labuschagne, 4 Steve Smith, 5 Travis Head, 6 Cameron Green, 7 Alex Carey (wkt), 8 Pat Cummins (capt), 9 Mitchell Starc, 10 Scott Boland, 11 Nathan Lyon.
For many of the squad, Ashes tours may soon be a thing of the past. When England return in four years’ time, only an optimist would expect James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Mark Wood, Chris Woakes, Dawid Malan, Jonny Bairstow or Jack Leach to be in the party.
Jos Buttler has already flown home with a broken finger, while Root and Ben Stokes will be both be 34 in 2025-26.
Root’s defence of Silverwood was spirited but not entirely unequivocal. When he was asked whether his team needed to win for the benefit of his coach’s career prospects, he shouldered arms.
‘I think we just need to win this week anyway, to instil a bit of pride back in from the way the first three games unfolded,’ he said. ‘We made a small step forward last week, and now we have to shift that into an actual performance.’
A green-looking pitch, and the fact that Stokes’s side injury will limit him to batting, leaves a tricky decision about whether to play Leach as part of a four-man frontline attack, plus Root’s off-spin, or recall Woakes.
But the return of Ollie Robinson in place of a veteran seamer – possibly Anderson – came with a warning from Root about his fitness following concerns that his pace had begun to fall away at Melbourne.
‘If you look at Australia’s three main seamers, they have generally managed to keep themselves fit and available, and for the last three years operated as a three-man attack along with Nathan Lyon,’ he said.
Sam Billings is set to be England’s wicketkeeper with Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow injured
The side injury suffered by Ben Stokes is likely to prevent him from bowling in the match
‘The way they have managed themselves physically is a serious lesson for young guys coming into this team, from these top performers who are fit and ready to play. Hopefully those sort of messages spread far and wide in the county set-up.’
Certainly, Australia’s left-armer Mitchell Starc, the only frontline fast bowler on either side to have played all four Tests, has maintained his pace at 90mph, and does not intend to miss out under Hobart’s floodlights.
Australia have won nine out of nine day/night Tests – all at home – and Starc has usually played a starring role, taking 52 wickets at 18 apiece and eight innings hauls of four or more.
‘I’m not looking for a break,’ he said, with an ominous grin. ‘It’s the last Test match of an Ashes series at home, and it’s a pink ball too.’
England face another pink ball trial in Hobart having struggled in the conditions in Adelaide
Mitchell Starc (centre) will be hoping for more wickets in pink ball Tests this week
Scott Boland is the only fitness worry among Australia’s seamers after suffering a rib injury at the SCG.
But if he misses out, they can draft in Jhye Richardson, who took five for 42 in England’s second innings at Adelaide – the other pink-ball Test of this series.
At the top of their order, meanwhile, Australia may drop Marcus Harris to accommodate Usman Khawaja, who stepped in at Sydney for Travis Head – available again after catching Covid – and promptly made two hundreds.
England are also considering swapping openers, with Rory Burns in line to replace Haseeb Hameed, who has averaged 10 in the series and regressed technically.
And unless Bairstow’s chipped right thumb makes an unexpected recovery, the gloves will go to Sam Billings, who two days out from the game was receiving the attention of wicketkeeping coach James Foster.
Rory Burns (left) is in line for a return due to fellow opener Haseeb Hameed’s (right) struggles
Whoever England select, Root was determined to draw strength from adversity after their preparations for the Sydney Test were hampered by the absence of several key back-room figures because of Covid.
‘The one thing we gained from that was a sense of real togetherness,’ he said. ‘We had to pull together and help each other prepare in a slightly different way. Sometimes that is a good thing.
‘You have to be a bit more selfless, and spend more time caring for the guys around you. It’s something that can really bring a side together.’
In the absence of anything more tangible, team spirit may be England’s best hope of ending a nightmare tour on a belated high.