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Feature

England's Melbourne conundrums: the likely changes for a must-win Test

Zak Crawley tipped for a recall with England set to roll the dice at the MCG

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
22-Dec-2021
As England gather in Melbourne for their last chance to salvage a gloomy Ashes campaign, changes are afoot after two thumping defeats at Brisbane and Adelaide. Here we take a look at the likely rejigs in a campaign that's so far gone badly awry.

Haseeb Hameed out, Zak Crawley in

All the scrutiny after Brisbane was on the hapless Rory Burns, the man whose first-ball-of-the-match duck set a tone for the series that subsequent events haven't exactly countered. And while he still remains vulnerable after a top score of 34 at Adelaide, it seems likelier that Haseeb Hameed will be the top-order scapegoat after scores of 6 and 0 in the same game - the latter effort also being England's 49th duck of the year.
The chat in the lead-up to the series had been about Hameed's "low hands", how a technique that proved so effective on his debut tour of India in 2016-17 was liable to get found out on Australia's faster, bouncier decks … and so it proved in the second innings at Adelaide, as Jhye Richardson found some lift on off stump and a spliced edge into the cordon.
It was as close to a self-fulfilling prophecy as you can get in this sport. All the good work that Hameed produced in adversity at Brisbane had been undone in entirely predictable circumstances, and frankly that is yet another black mark for England's management. They rushed back a player whose game was hanging by a thread this time last year, and are now likely to mess with his rehabilitation by bundling him straight back to the fringes.
And in his place, back comes the golden child. Zak Crawley's 6'5" frame offers the polar opposite technique to Hameed. High hands, flowing strokes, the sort of domineering back-foot game that really could work on these pitches - not unlike the methods that produced Michael Vaughan's stunning campaign in 2002-03. But he will be coming back into the side with a total of 156 runs in his last 14 England innings, including 10 single-figure scores and a solitary half-century. His career-best 267 against Pakistan in 2020 feels a long, long time ago.

Ollie Pope out, Jonny Bairstow in

Speaking on the Switch Hit podcast this week, Ian Bell suggested it was time to take Ollie Pope "out of the firing line" after a tough start to the tour, adding that he knows - from personal experience - the pressures of being a young and out-of-form batter, especially one in whom so many hopes have been invested.
But to judge by his dismissals in both innings at Adelaide, there's not a lot of point in placing any hopes on Pope for the time being. First time around, he was utterly confounded by Nathan Lyon - spooked by a big turning offbreak that looped off his forearm to short leg, then caught by the same fielder two balls later as he galloped to the pitch in a bid to be proactive.
And then, on the final morning, with England's survival mission plain as day, Pope lasted six balls from Mitchell Starc - all delivered into the body from round the wicket - before flinching at the very first one pushed across his bows from over the wicket, and was hopping in self-admonishment before Steve Smith could swallow the edge at slip. It was a weak and predictable demise, and epitomised a Test career that has regressed, almost from the moment of his superb breakthrough hundred in Port Elizabeth two winters ago.
And so back into the fray for the umpteenth time - like a 21st Century Graeme Hick - comes the should-be-mighty Jonny Bairstow, a player whose recent Test record epitomises the extent to which England's white-ball focus has ransacked the techniques of their Test contenders.
In a parallel universe, Bairstow could be an England Test great. In 2016, he amassed 1470 runs at 58.80 in a year of red-hot form to rival Joe Root's current run, and all while keeping wicket at the same time. But around the same time, he made a conscious decision to repurpose his technique to bring out the best in his white-ball game - to world-beating effect, as it turns out. Yet his Test game has never been the same, with the same set-up for booming drives in the Powerplay leaving his stumps desperately vulnerable to the moving red ball. His four Test ducks this year are second only to Burns' six, while one half-century in 15 innings in 2021 doesn't exactly offer much of a solution to England's run-drought either.

Chris Woakes out, Mark Wood in

At least there is one change in the offing that could yet rattle England out of their torpor. Mark Wood bowled magnificently in the first Test at Brisbane, his eventual figures of 3 for 85 in 25.3 overs doing no justice whatsoever to the ferocious, consistent speeds that he drummed up from a standing start, in each of his eight fiery spells.
Within four balls of his opening spell, he was touching speeds of 150kph, and instantly forced David Warner out of his comfort zone, after a cautious but uncomplicated opening gambit against the medium pace of Chris Woakes and Ollie Robinson.
It was a reminder that England did have a plan for this series once upon a time, one that revolved around an arsenal of 90mph options - Jofra Archer foremost among them, although Tuesday's desperate news that he is to undergo a second elbow operation epitomises the crass handling of their resources that has left their options so threadbare for this series.
To that end, England didn't really have much choice but to leave Wood on the sidelines at Adelaide, so as to spread his fitness across at least three Tests, rather than to go all-in for the first two and risk aggravating his ever dodgy ankles through over-use.
In his absence, they had clearly hoped to get more assistance from the pink ball under the floodlights, but as things turned out, the ball barely budged from the straight and narrow - least of all for the toiling Chris Woakes, who stuck at his lines and lengths gamely, but got an utter beasting from Australia's tail as they slogged towards their declaration. His rearguard 44 is unlikely to mitigate a bowling record in Australia that now reads 13 wickets at 55.61 in six Tests.

Stuart Broad out, Jack Leach in

It's at this point that things get really dicey for England. Nothing epitomises their misallocated resources quite like Jack Leach's inclusion in Brisbane - a renowned spinners' graveyard - at the expense of Stuart Broad, the one character in their line-up with a proven ability to rise to the Gabbatoir's challenge.
By the time Leach had been filleted for 102 runs in 13 ropey overs, England had no choice but to pull him from the firing line at Adelaide, leaving Root to bowl 20 overs in the first innings, before Dawid Malan and even Ollie Robinson, with some very serviceable fingerspin, popped up with telling spells in the second.
And given that England are obliged to try something to revive their fortunes, Broad could be set to make way once more. Leach may not be the answer for the MCG either, but he's the only question that England have revised for, given their peculiar failure to countenance any other realistic slow-bowling options.
Dom Bess still looks too far short of consistency to be trusted, while the England Lions' failure to select either of their legspinners, Matt Parkinson and Mason Crane, in their unofficial Test against Australia A was a travesty. What was the point of that now-disbanded shadow squad if it wasn't to provide the senior side with the sorts of options they might need to fall back on?

Jos Buttler in … because there's no alternative

Talking of which, where's Ben Foakes when you need him? Obviously, he's also back in England, just when his faultless attributes could have served a purpose for a team currently lacking expertise in any department. Alex Carey's serene series for Australia has helped to reinforce the value of a wicketkeeper that can be trusted, every bit as much as Jos Buttler's chaotic display at Adelaide helped to undermine any chance England had of fighting back with the ball.
Unless Bairstow gets the gig - a role he's done just once since losing his place in 2019 - it'll be back to Buttler for Melbourne, his current technical shortcomings notwithstanding. England can only hope that the partial success of his Adelaide rearguard can help to refocus his game.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket