Ashes Fifth Test Preview: Depleted England seek series-closing win at Hobart

England summoned newfound resilience when defeat looked inevitable in Sydney. Whitewash avoided, Joe Root’s side are likely to shuffle the pack ahead of the fifth and final Test of another punishing Ashes tour.

By Tim Williams Published: 13 January 2022 - 11.05am

After the humiliation came the recrimination. What followed England’s meek surrender of the Ashes was no surprise: systemic change was demanded; scapegoats were sought, and the English game was quickly consumed by existential dread.

England’s Melbourne meltdown was described as a “dark day” by beleaguered captain Joe Root and another Ashes whitewash felt inescapable.

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It is in this context that their rescue mission in the fourth Test – admittedly assisted by some inclement weather and remarkable good fortune – should be viewed.

After being comprehensively outplayed in Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne, England finally showed some resolve in Sydney to earn a dramatic draw in a genuine Ashes thriller.

It’s a small mercy after another shambolic tour (England have now lost 12 out of their last 14 Tests in Australia), but at least Root and company have eliminated the prospect of 5-0.

“Before this match, I spoke about putting some pride back into English cricket,” said Root with a palpable sense of relief. “The fight, desire and character shown in the five days has done that in a small way.”

England’s marked improvement at such a late such is particularly maddening given the lack of red-ball preparation before the first Test.

Pat Cummins and Joe Root shake hands after England held out for a draw in the fourth Test in Sydney

Jonny Bairstow struck a masterful century, Stuart Broad collected his 19th five-for, Ben Stokes found some form with the bat and Zac Crawley batted with elegance and intent at the top of the order.

Nevertheless, silver linings shouldn’t fudge another failure to take 20 Australian wickets or make 300 with the bat.

England survived at the SCG, but they didn’t emerge unscathed. Jos Buttler has returned home after a breaking a finger while keeping wicket in Australia’s first innings and Bairstow and Stokes are both injury doubts.

Sam Billings has been drafted in to solve the crisis, with the Kent wicketkeeper in line to make his Test debut.

“With experience and maturity you can get a sense of where your game is at. I’m 100 per cent ready if required”
- Sam Billings

The 30-year-old, who has been competing in the Big Bash League for Sydney Thunder, was preparing for England’s T20 series in the West Indies when he got the call to join the Test squad.

With flights deemed too risky as Covid sweeps Australia, he had to complete a 12-hour, 500-mile car journey from the Gold Coast to England’s Sydney base.

He has played 25 one-day internationals and 33 T20s since making his debut in 2015, but insists he is ready to answer England’s SOS in the longest format.

“Regardless of the format, regardless of circumstances, with experience and maturity you can get a sense of where your game is at. I’m 100 per cent ready if required,” he said.

A change could also be made at the top of the order with Haseeb Hameed’s position looking increasingly untenable after six consecutive single figure scores.

Rory Burns, who was discarded after two Tests, could come back in in a move some may interpret as a backwards step.

The seamers could be switched up again with Ollie Robinson and Chris Woakes standing by with a decision likely to be made after the fitness of Stokes is assessed.

Australia, meanwhile, have got so much right this series, especially their selection which has been inspired.

From Travis Head and Scott Boland to Usman Khawaja who made twin centuries at the SCG, every contentious call has been wholly justified.

Khawaja looked in supreme touch in Sydney and is likely to play in Tasmania as attention turns to the year ahead in which Australia will play nine Tests in Asia.

With Head set to come straight back in after overcoming Covid, Khawaja could replace the struggling Marcus Harris at the top of the order to accommodate the returning south Australian.

In the bowling department, Josh Hazlewood hasn’t recovered from the side strain he picked up in the opening match at the Gabba.

52
The number of wickets taken by Australian pace bowler Mitchell Starc with the pink ball

Mitchell Starc is the only frontline bowler to have played every Test of the series so far, but he has an incredible record with the pink ball, taking 52 wickets at 18.23, and is likely to retain his place.

Captain Pat Cummins said Boland pulled up “a little bit sore” after needing painkillers to manage a rib injury sustained on the third day in Sydney and the 32-year-old could miss out with Jhye Richardson and Michael Neser waiting in the wings.

England head to Hobart for the first ever Ashes Test in Tasmania hoping to feel at home in a more temperate climate.

Hobart lost the cancelled Test against Afghanistan earlier this year but were given the chance to welcome Australia for a 14th time after Covid restrictions saw Perth’s Optus Stadium lose the match.

The 20,000 capacity Blundstone Arena (which will be capped at 12,000 each day) will host the second day-night match of the series and the first Test of any kind since 2016 when Australia were thrashed by South Africa.

Hobart’s Blundstone Arena will host the first ever Ashes Test match in Tasmania

England have played six white-ball games in Hobart, winning only one in 2007 and that was against New Zealand.

Root will be hoping his seamers can exploit conditions likely to be considerably more familiar than any of the other four venues.

Early speculation suggested that the Blundstone Arena wicket could be something of a batting paradise, but curator Marcus Pamplin is confident that there will be plenty in it for the bowlers.

“It will have a tinge of green on it for sure,” he said. “The lead-up hasn’t been the greatest [because of the wet weather in Tasmania] but we’ve always had a tinge of green on the wickets down here.

“The first day there should be a bit in it then at some stage it will flatten out into a good batting pitch and then should go up and down days three to four. For sure there’ll be something in it for the bowlers.”

After a truly wretched 2021, England took a small step forward in Sydney. Now they look to go one better as a memorable series concludes in picturesque surroundings of Tasmania.

The fifth and final Ashes Test gets underway at 3am on Friday 14 January on BT Sport 1 HD on TV and online.