A proud fifth Test victory would make this series a little more palatable and suggest that there is reason to be hopeful about this English group after all
That streak may have been lost under the rubble of a humiliating defeat in just over two days in Melbourne over two weeks ago, which saw England beat England 3-0 with two Tests remaining.
On the eve of this final Ashes test, there are more question marks over England’s XI than there have been in Joe Root’s five years as captain. The only certainty, however, is that a win here in Hobart would have a bolstering effect not only on Root’s leadership but also on the team’s development over the next 12 months.
However, after the confidence boost of a dramatic draw on the final day in Sydney, this group of players have an opportunity to do something no English side have done in the last decade – win an Ashes Test in Australia.
It doesn’t change the outcome of the series or stop the questions of planning, running and managing this tour. But having won just one Test since February last year it would certainly prove that this group of players, for all their mistakes, have the ability to develop into a more consistent, effective team.
They have felt right at home since arriving in Tasmania on Monday. The weather, noticeably colder than on the mainland, is reminiscent of autumn in England. The tourists were also given a green lawn when they turned up for their first training session at the picturesque Bellerive Oval on Wednesday.
It’s surface that suggests a melee attack might be the way to go. Stuart Broad and James Anderson, England’s two all-time leading wicket-takers, should surely be licking their lips for what it could offer them with the pink ball.
But England will also be careful. This match will be played under floodlights and they have lost every one of their last five day-night Tests away from home – most recently in Adelaide last month when they were beaten by 275 runs.
Then there’s the team. There are injury doubts for both Ben Stokes (side) and Jonny Bairstow (thumb) as well as question marks over whether Haseeb Hameed can open after six consecutive single digits. Will they drop Spinner Jack Leach and go for an all-seam attack under conditions that suggest this is the way to go? And if so, can Anderson pass another test after playing three straight games?
Overall, England could make up to six changes. But the odds are they will make four, with Rory Burns favorite for Hameed at the top of the order, Stokes likely to defy his sideload and play as a specialist batter, Dan Lawrence possibly for Bairstow, Sam Billings to make a Test debut as wicketkeeper and Ollie Robinson are fit again after overcoming a shoulder injury in which he missed Sydney, replacing Leach.
Root was certainly full of praise for Billings, who has been on England’s white ball teams for more than six years without ever establishing himself. After Jos Buttler’s tour ended with a broken finger, the 30-year-old is ready for the biggest moment of his career.
“He would be a very capable replacement,” Root said. “He’s been on the teams for a long time, he’s had to live with being a water boy if you will for a large part of his career. But he managed himself and his game really well. If he gets the opportunity, he will give it his all. He’s already added a tremendous amount of energy to the group.”
Speaking of Stokes, who is keen to play as a batter specialist after scoring twice in Sydney in the 60s, Root said: “It’s very difficult to say ‘no’ to Ben but you have to look after him and the team’s wellbeing can get through the 11 player game and he won’t let others down by playing through something serious. You know he will do what is right for the group.”
After everything that has been hurled at England in Australia, from the two-week quarantine in Queensland in early November to the painful three defeats and Covid outbreak in the squad during the Boxing Day Test, a win here would be a welcome end to a nightmare tour .
Given how things have gone so far, that might be asking too much.