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Match Analysis

Wounded England stop the rot, but relief could be temporary

It's entirely possible a patched-up England will lose next week, but for now the tour narrative has changed

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
09-Jan-2022
James Anderson and Stuart Broad embrace after the match, Australia vs England, Men's Ashes, 4th Test, 5th day, Sydney, January 9, 2022

Joe Root on the draw: 'It was hugely important, especially off the back of the previous Test, which was a really dark day for English cricket'  •  Getty Images

Two Sydney Tests, 11 years apart. The first of which concluded in an atmosphere akin to the Last Night of the Proms, as a packed auditorium of flag-waving England fans thronged the Brewongle and Trumper Stands to sing hosannahs to Andrew Strauss' all-conquering heroes as they went through the final-day motions to wrap up their third innings victory of a 3-1 series win.
The second occasion, on the other hand, was more like the Last Fight of the Poms - a rather more sparse choir of ex-pat Englishmen singing "Football's Coming Home" didn't have quite the same impact on the acoustics, even if the loins of a much-lampooned batting line-up managed to be sufficiently girded in the circumstances.
And the acclaim at the moment of "victory" wasn't quite as raucous either - more of a collective exhaling than a mass outpouring, as James Anderson did the needful to see off Steven Smith's final legbreak of a tricksy two-over spell.
Nevertheless, between those two SCG finales lies a barren wasteland of Ashes ignominy in Australia - 12 defeats in 13 Tests to be precise, and if the last one to get away, the Melbourne Test of 2017-18, was a more statistically dominant display thanks to Alastair Cook's 244, then the moribund nature of the pitch had drained the contest of any jeopardy long before its end.
So this is it then. This drawn dead-rubber contest is the high point of more than a decade of Ashes-tour batterings - a match that was still a solitary wicket away from being yet another 100-plus-run defeat, and which might have gone the same way as England's last attempted rearguard, in Adelaide in December, but for the loss of seven crucial overs to rain.
"It's a small step forward," Joe Root, England's captain, rightly put it at the close. "Coming into the game, I spoke about putting some pride back into English cricket, and the fight and the desire and the character shown today, and throughout the five days, has shown that in a small way. I'm really proud of the way the guys dug in."
Celebrating a losing draw is not really the done thing in cricket - in 2005, Australia's euphoria after clinging on at Old Trafford was seized upon by England's captain Michael Vaughan as evidence of how the balance of that particular series had shifted, so who knows what it would have said of the current state of this rivalry if England had dared to get too giddy about this dead-rubber lock-out.
And yet, sometimes, all you can ask is for someone to stop the rot. After the humiliation in Melbourne last month, where England's final-day 68 surrendered the Ashes within barely an hour of day three, 5-0 was writ large across this contest. There was no fight left in the squad, and consequently there was no hope. And without even that to fall back on, there was no point.
Now? Well, it's a stretch to suggest that England have even turned a corner with this performance. They managed, by the skin of Anderson's bat, to avoid losing ten wickets in a single day's play, but they still haven't managed a total in excess of 300 in eight innings of this campaign, while Usman Khawaja - with twin hundreds in his Player-of-the-Match display - has already made more runs in the series than any England batter bar the ubiquitous Joe Root.
But there was a substance to England's display in Sydney that simply had not materialised outside of Root and Dawid Malan's abortive alliances in Brisbane and Adelaide. Jonny Bairstow's pluck was backed up in both innings by Ben Stokes, who found the cussed mood that had eluded him during the sharp end of the series, when he had played like a man who was too busy reacquainting himself with his bat to get distracted by such niceties as the match situation.
Stokes' movement may have been restricted by the side strain that he suffered while bowling on the second day, but Root dropped a sizeable hint that he'll be fronting up in Hobart, irrespective of the injury.
"It seemed to refocus him when it came to him to bat," Root said. "You could see that look in his eye which we've seen a couple of times before. His performance with the bat was more like Ben Stokes near his best, which is a really exciting thing to see going into the last game."
And then there was Zak Crawley, whose Test career reads like the static on a badly-tuned long-wave radio - intermittent bursts of clarity interspersed with frustrating hisses and wails. No England player all series long has looked as assured or domineering as he did during his 77 from 100 balls in this final innings, just as his 53 on the first morning in Ahmedabad in February had given a thrillingly misleading outlook to a match that England would lose inside two days.
It takes some tekkers to make batting look quite as easy as Crawley has done on the occasions when everything has clicked - most famously during his 267 against Pakistan in 2020, which was then followed by a total of 173 runs at 10.81 in his next eight Tests in 2021. But having come into this latest contest with the bullish prediction that he'd make a century in Sydney, Crawley departs with the respect of such luminaries as Ricky Ponting, who declared on Channel 7's coverage that "there's something about this young man".
"You've got to have a really good understanding, individually, of what you need to do to score runs," Root said. "That clarity was there for Zak in this game. His tempo, his rhythm, he looked very in control which will give him a huge amount of confidence moving forward."
With his 24th birthday coming up next month, there should be something about Crawley for many years yet, but then we were saying that 18 months ago after that gargantuan maiden hundred. The difficulty for England's young players at present is that so much learning needs to be done on the hoof, in particular their high-profile failures - the likes of which might once have taken place in relative anonymity following a return to the county circuit.
Right now, in the bubble lifestyle, there's no alternative but to take each setback on the chin and jut it straight back out for another blow - as Bairstow did with some success in Sydney, after a mixed return to red-ball cricket in Melbourne, but which Haseeb Hameed continues to do with mounting futility after his sixth single-figure score in a row. Somewhere, within his ransacked technique, there still lurks a Test-class batter, but it's going to take some character, above and beyond that which Root called for in this game, for him to bounce back from this ignominy.
Celebrating a losing draw is not really the done thing in cricket - in 2005, Australia's euphoria after clinging on at Old Trafford was seized upon by England captain Michael Vaughan as evidence of how the balance of that series had shifted
But such are the reasons why this draw could yet hold a longer-term significance for England, because collectively they needed to stop free-falling. On the face of it, it's a long way short of the 2002-03 Ashes win, again in Sydney, which saved Nasser Hussain's men from a whitewash and served a timely reminder that even the mightiest Australia team of all time had its weaknesses, but draws are a rarer currency in Test cricket these days.
Root, England's most-capped skipper, has presided over just nine draws in 60 Tests, compared to Mike Atherton's 20 in 54 - a difference which hints at the fast-forwarded nature of the modern game, with fewer players equipped for the long haul, and so more surprise when a team manages to steel itself as England did at the SCG.
It's entirely probable that normal service will be resumed under the Hobart floodlights next week, particularly against a patched-up England team that could have up to three enforced changes, including a debutant wicketkeeper in Sam Billings. But at least the tour narrative has been altered for now, and for that Root is happy to accept the "positives" that were so manifestly lacking when the team's head coach, Chris Silverwood, attempted to front up after the Melbourne debacle.
"It was hugely important, especially off the back of the previous Test match, which was a really dark day for English Test cricket," Root said. "It would have been very easy for us to roll over and feel sorry for ourselves, but it was up to the guys to put some pride back into the badge and show how much they care about playing for England.
"We never make it easy for ourselves," he added. "You guys probably feel that as much as anyone watching. But we found a way to get it done today, albeit the guys at the end there had to deal with a tricky period. It was a team effort."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket