The underperformers: One last chance for Ashes glory or redemption

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    If names and careers are made and ruined by Ashes series won and lost, then a group of Australian and English players will walk on to the Sydney Cricket Ground these next five days knowing they have few remaining chances to ensure they’re a part of the historical folklore.

    Both Australia’s and England’s campaigns have been dominated by a few key players.

    Steve Smith has 604 runs from six innings and may still be batting in Melbourne. David Warner has 385 from seven. Shaun Marsh is 11 shy of 300. Tim Paine has 18 catches and a stumping in seven innings.

    Mitchell Starc has 19 wickets from three Tests. Josh Hazlewood, Nathan Lyon, and Pat Cummins have 18, 17, and 15 wickets respectively.

    For England, it’s not quite as healthy, as you might expect on the wrong end of a 3-0 series tally.

    Alastair Cook – now – has 327 runs in seven innings, Dawid Malan has 316, while Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root sit either side of 250.

    Jimmy Anderson has 16 wickets, but Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes sit next in line with only 10 each and averages in the forties. Bairstow has just nine dismissals.

    New South Wales have only played two Sheffield Shield games in Sydney this season so far, and neither were at the SCG. Vision of the toss will be the first time most of us have seen the Test strip this summer, and that has quite likely been a factor in neither side being overly committal around playing two spinners or not.

    Indeed, the sight of more grass than was expected earlier in the week was seen as a boost for Starc’s chances of a return from his bruised heel.

    So all we’ve really got to go on for the SCG wicket this season is the Big Bash League. The Sydney Swans had big wins in their last three outings at home, but I don’t think Lance Franklin’s 18 goals in three games is much of a guide, especially since they were back in September and August. It almost certainly won’t be as green now.

    The Sydney Sixers haven’t been great in the BBL, but the two SCG games have delivered 268 and 328 runs respectively. And the Sixers’ three spinners have to date taken two wickets between them. Twenty20 wickets aren’t prepared quite the same as the Test strip, obviously, but it feels like the SCG doesn’t quite carry the same spin qualities it once did.

    I can’t see Australia playing two spinners (mainly because three quicks plus Lyon is a stronger attack regardless of the pitch), and while it’s unclear Crane will play at all, it appears that England might not either.

    And so looking at the top of both orders, it places the microscope over Cameron Bancroft and Usman Khawaja for Australia, and Mark Stoneman and James Vince for England.

    Australian opening batsman Cameron Bancroft walks out of the dressing rooms to bat in Australia's second innings on Day 4 of the First Test match between Australia and England at the Gabba in Brisbane, Sunday, November 26, 2017.

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    Bancroft said in Sydney this week that he’s not worried about the increasing debate about his place in the side, and though of course he would say that, he’s got a decent reason to remain confident.

    With 179 runs in his first four Tests, Bancroft has made a pretty reasonable start to his career – Matt Renshaw had 131 in three Tests going into Sydney last summer – and it’s really only been the second Test in Adelaide that Bancroft hasn’t got a start, remembering that he was burnt by a mix-up with Warner in the first innings.

    Curiously, his last three innings comprise 25 in Perth, 26 on Boxing Day, and 27 in the second innings in Melbourne. While this gradual mathematical sequence suggests he’s still some way off a maiden century, he is only 23 innings off the start of what will be an impressive run of Test fifties. That’s all we ask: improvement.

    The discussion around Khawaja isn’t quite as light-hearted. Though I still wouldn’t be dropping him in any hurry, it’s understandable why the discussion has resumed again. And regardless of how you view his stop-start treatment at the selection table, the point remains he needs a score in Sydney.

    If Khawaja doesn’t the selectors will decide whether 162 runs in seven Ashes innings is good enough, or if 509 first-class runs is more indicative of his form this summer. He’ll still go to South Africa, but a score in Sydney will go a long way to determining whether he gets to play all four Tests.

    Stoneman arrived in Australia with big raps from Sir Ian Botham, among others, and though he started the series off well enough – better than Cook, arguably – he followed his fighting 56 in Perth up with a second innings of three, and 15 in Melbourne. 208 runs is similarly reasonable to Bancroft’s series – Sydney will be Stoneman’s eighth Test – but England desperately need an opening partnership to launch an innings.

    While Bancroft and Warner already have two century stands this summer, and another partnership of 51, Cook and Stoneman are yet to pass 53, and have three others between 26 and 35.

    Vince has had a similar series to Stoneman – 199 runs at 28.4 from seven innings. He’s only 11 Tests into his career, too, and his 83 in Brisbane immediately put him forward as one to watch. He’s followed that up with a second Test fifty in Perth, but aside from those two scores, he has five scores below 25.

    It’s not exactly what you’d want from your number three. Vince won’t lose his spot for the final Test however; the likely replacement would be Garry Ballance and he hasn’t played since the first week of December.

    Ali simply needs wickets, but before that can happen he needs to look like he knows how to take a wicket. Since midway through the Adelaide Test, he’s looked less threatening than your average third-grade stalwart. Malan has actually loomed as the English tweaker most likely. Woakes is in the same boat as Ali.

    But it’s important for the South African tour that Bird plays in Sydney; I’ve no doubt Cummins would want to play every Test he’s available for, but the end game might dictate that it’s more important that he’s ready to go for Kingsmead in Durban in the first week of March.

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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    The Crowd Says (10)

    • January 4th 2018 @ 7:46am
      Richard Islip said | January 4th 2018 @ 7:46am | ! Report

      Maybe this is also the time to question the role the English coach plays.
      Bayliss said that he did not watch county cricket. I am still trying to get my head around that one.
      And the Poms have been unsuccessful on the field.
      And off the field.
      So what exactly is Bayliss paid for?
      He is Aussie through and through, and got taken apart.
      Wither his own career?

    • January 4th 2018 @ 8:39am
      Worlds Biggest said | January 4th 2018 @ 8:39am | ! Report

      Bancroft has been solid so far however he needs to go on with it if he gets another start. If anything he needs a big score for his confidence before taking on a formidable Saffas bowling lineup. Usie has been very disappointing this series, he isn’t moving his feet and looks ponderous. He will likely get a gig to SA due to his good record against them, however he is seriously out of form at the mo.

    • January 4th 2018 @ 10:12am
      paul said | January 4th 2018 @ 10:12am | ! Report

      Very good analysis Brett. You’re right about Khawaja and Bancroft. They need just one decent score in the 70’s or above to cement their confidence as well as their place.

      I remember reading a piece from England before their last summer started where Bayliss described Ali as a “batsman who bowls a bit”. Sadly for Ali in one sense, he did really well with the all and all of a sudden, he’s touted as a world class off spinner by the English press. This tour has shown his shortcomings as a spinner, which has badly affected his batting. Let the guy go back to making runs, treat him as a part time spinner and if he gets a few wickets – bonus.

    • Roar Guru

      January 4th 2018 @ 10:33am
      DingoGray said | January 4th 2018 @ 10:33am | ! Report

      I agree Brett,

      Bancroft and Khawaja both have Joe Burns breathing down on them.

      Burns is in the form of his life! He has to go to South Africa. He has great chemistry with Warner at the top
      but could quite easily replace Khawaja as well.

    • January 4th 2018 @ 11:55am
      Frankie Hughes said | January 4th 2018 @ 11:55am | ! Report

      Khawaja is a flat track bully. Nothing more. He can’t play the moving ball nor can he play spin. If he wasn’t Smith’s great mate, he’d have been axed a long time ago.

      • Roar Guru

        January 4th 2018 @ 12:08pm
        DingoGray said | January 4th 2018 @ 12:08pm | ! Report

        Khawaja is not a flat track bully!

        If you have any knowledge of Cricket you will find that Khawaja has scored two of the best Hundreds in Shield Cricket on absolute raging Green Tops!

        Even this Shield season, he scored 100 in a Day night game. The closest score to him in the game was a 40.

        • January 4th 2018 @ 4:20pm
          John Erichsen said | January 4th 2018 @ 4:20pm | ! Report

          Agreed. Khawaja is simply down on confidence and struggling to get his feet moving. That being said, his impressive shield scores on lively green tops, one being a few seasons ago, count for very little in the here and now. Fingers crossed, he makes some runs this test.

        • January 4th 2018 @ 6:41pm
          Frankie Hughes said | January 4th 2018 @ 6:41pm | ! Report

          Shield cricket isn’t Test cricket hence why Khawaja’s record is pitiful outside Australia. He’s overrated

    • January 4th 2018 @ 11:57am
      jamesb said | January 4th 2018 @ 11:57am | ! Report

      Hi Brett

      For most of the day, I use my mobile phone. And normally, I use my phone to read articles from this site.

      However, lately i have been struggling to read articles due to the Chubb advertising. Which means, that i have read only half of your article. Is there another way around to navigate away from Chubb advertising?

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