England head to ‘special’ SCG Test in search of Ashes inspiration

The Sydney Football Stadium in Moore Park serves a decent reminder Australia is a country that rarely stands still. Originally built in 1988, what appeared to be a serviceable venue has been bulldozed since the last Ashes tour four years ago and in its place an eye-catching new AU$828m replacement is approaching completion.

Barely a stone’s throw from the latest sporting UFO to land on Australian soil sits the wonderful Sydney Cricket Ground, which despite being upgraded and swollen by way of capacity over the years still retains a sense of history. Its green-roofed 19th century ladies’ and members’ pavilions are untouched through their heritage listing. So, too, the old clock tower and an array of statues that denote past greats of the game. It remains a truly evocative place to watch Test cricket.

Inspiration has been in short supply for England’s cricketers since they arrived for this pandemic-era Ashes tour in November and their issues have been myriad en route to 68 all out and 3-0 down with two Tests to play. But as they step out onto the cambered baize outfield, Joe Root hopes his men take in the surroundings, think of the charity angle to proceedings, remember past English success stories and realise how fortunate they all are to be representing their country during admittedly tough times.

“It’s obviously a special Test match,” said Root, before training on Monday. “You’ve got the McGrath Foundation [raising funds for breast cancer support] and you look at some of the performances on previous tours, like the 2010-11 team winning here, how special that was and how it will live long in the memory of fans and players.

“It was here [Darren] Gough got his hat-trick in 1999, too. It’s a venue where a number of special things have happened for England players and it’s an opportunity to do just that. For me personally, I’d love more than anything to walk away with a win. Personal achievements make you proud and it means you are pulling your weight. But nothing compares to winning a Test match and I’m desperate to do that.”

If there is a positive to be found beyond the red lines on various lateral flow tests during a disrupted buildup, it’s that the tourists appear to have just about held together off the field while disintegrating on it. There has been grumbling about the Covid lifestyle and Stuart Broad has gone public with his annoyance at missing out on green surfaces in Brisbane and Melbourne. But any serious angst is yet to bleed out of the dressing room while Australia have been tearing them up with barely a sledge to be heard.

Perhaps this should be a concern; a sign that a team which has been forced to plough through 21 Test matches since the start of the pandemic, compared to seven for their hosts, has now entered a dazed fug of mere fixture fulfilment. Australia are on a heady roll, their series win one of contributions throughout the team, and will be hard to stop now. Either way, performances in this fourth Test, followed by a fifth still slated for Hobart, may provide an answer as to the state of various minds among Root’s troupe.

They may also serve to inform how much substance there is to all the private and public support for Root’s continuation as captain as he passes Alastair Cook’s record of 59 Tests in charge. The 31-year-old once again insisted it was a topic to be discussed at the end of the tour, but stressed his pride at being given the opportunity to lead “has not wavered from day one”, adding: “I’ll keep throwing everything I can into trying to give England the best chances of winning and give the best account of ourselves.”

In the past week this has involved Root literally throwing everything he can at teammates in the nets due to the Covid-enforced absences of the head coach, Chris Silverwood, and three members of his staff. England’s opponents, though forced to bring in Usman Khawaja at No 5 after Travis Head tested positive for the virus, have had far fewer issues with which to contend, even if they have been ticked off for not drinking the official beer sponsor of Cricket Australia during the celebrations in Melbourne.

Two days out from the toss Root did not give much away selection-wise, although the peripheral roles of Rory Burns and Ollie Pope at training pointed to more 12th man-duties and an unchanged England top seven.

Gone are the days of Sydney being the ground where spinners lick their lips, however, with Nathan Lyon, one of a number on the books of New South Wales, averaging 40 with the ball here in Test cricket. As such, and with some rain forecast over the coming days, recent talk of the Queensland leg-spinner Mitch Swepson coming in to join him as a pairing in preparation for the upcoming tour of Pakistan always felt optimistic.

Instead, beyond a return for the experienced Khawaja, and with little reason to press Josh Hazlewood into service too soon after the side strain picked up during the first Test, Australia’s final decision was whether to retain Scott Boland after his remarkable six for seven in Melbourne or return to the established pecking order by recalling Jhye Richardson. Boland got the nod on Tuesdaythis morning, instantly dashing local predictions of a one-cap wonder/future quiz question.

England, meanwhile, were lining up a return for Broad in place of Ollie Robinson, who for all his obvious skill has looked heavy-legged at times. But ultimately the question will be whether their batting lineup can finally stand up to an attack that has been relentless from ball one of this uncompetitive series or find itself once again unsentimentally razed to the ground like the old football stadium next door.