Joe Root, having lost his world No.1 ranking to Marnus Labuschange and seen his team slump to consecutive defeats, appears on the brink of another crushing Ashes disappointment, but is adamant he can start a dramatic turnaround in Melbourne.
Root’s Ashes record as captain is dire – eight losses, two defeats and two draws from his 12 games – and few give his side a prayer of getting themselves back into the series.
Root, however, has boldly predicted he can achieve a career first – a maiden Ashes century on Australian soil.
“I feel in a really good place with my batting,” he told reporters. “I feel confident I can, in these next three games, bang out a hundred in these conditions.
“I know that’s a brave thing to say but my conversation rate, this year, it’s not been an issue at all.
“I feel like I have managed that well and have an understanding of how I want to score my runs. There’s clarity there, I just need to keep putting myself in those positions, just have the bit between my teeth, (make it) ‘over my dead body’.”
Root has been the best of England’s batting with scores of 89 and 62 so far but his selections and approach have been criticised by friend and foe through two limp England performances.
The decision to leave out spinner Jack Leach from Adelaide was one such big call he appeared to get wrong, although Leach was pounded in Brisbane.
“He has used the time to gain real clarity on how he needs to go about things in these conditions,” said Root. “If he gets the chance to play here, he needs to understand how they are going to approach him and what he needs to combat that.”
Root also admitted he rarely got angry with his teammates but made an exception after the Adelaide defeat.
“I did at the end of the last game, because of the manner in which we lost,” Root said. “I’ll always try to look at things with a level, pragmatic approach, but I don’t think you could after the way we played those last two games. I expect a response from everyone this week, to bring a nice Christmas present home for everyone who stays up to watch.”
Watson stunned by Stokes tactics
Much was made before the series of the potential impact of Ben Stokes. But the allrounder’s influence has been muted, and former Australian star Shane Watson expressed shock at Stokes’ approach with the bat.
“Rory Burns, Haseeb Hameed and Ollie Pope have all been short of runs, but what has really blown me away is to see the defensive way in which Ben Stokes has batted,” Watson wrote in The Times.
“I’m gobsmacked. It goes against everything that he is — the person he is, the player he is.
“It is obviously a tactic because of his big back-and-across movements to the quick bowlers; he’s just not trying to score. When he is at his best he’s got no fear, he’s taking the bowling on no matter what the conditions, and he has such incredible skill that it doesn’t matter whether he’s facing spin or the quicks. The bowlers have to bowl the perfect ball otherwise he’s all over it because he’s got shots all around the ground.
“I’m racking my brain as to why this would be his game plan. I think it is perhaps because he has come into the series underdone in terms of preparation. Maybe he’s trying to find his way into the series by spending time in the middle. But the Australian bowlers are just dictating play. They can bowl wherever they want. He’s not going to score. At some stage he is going to get out and without having really made an impact on the scoreboard.”
Watson did have some strong words of praise for Haseeb Hameed – dubbed a walking wicket by Geoff Boycott.
“Hameed looks a complete batsman,” said Watson. “He’s got a nice technique and he’s not overawed by the occasion. He seems very calm and happy to take on the cover drive. He just needs to take time to find his feet, and a rhythm, in an Ashes series in Australia. As with Australians playing in England, it takes time to work through your plans.”
Horses for courses selection touted
While The Roar’s coaching columnist Trent Woodhill urged England to make some ‘horses for courses’ adjustments to their batting roster, it looks like Australia might be leaning into the strategy for the MCG game.
Victorian paceman Scott Boland is firming as a strong contender to make his debut and become only the second male Indigenous Test player for Australia in 144 years after Jason Gillespie.
Australia coach Justin Langer expects Mitchell Starc to play but surprisingly suggested Jhye Richardson and Michael Neser might not be at required fitness after just one Test each.
“We’ve got to wait and see how Josh Hazlewood pulls up and also how Michael Neser and Jhye Richardson pull up,” Langer said on Thursday.
“Both Michael and Jhye did a great job in the last Test match. We’ve got back-to-back matches, it’s a tough series, we all know that five Test matches are pretty much in a row.
“We’ll manage our bowlers as best we can and we’ll put our fittest and most ready to perform out on the park in Melbourne.”
“I love what Scott brings to the table,” Gillespie told News Corp.
“He’s a fantastic bowler, he performs in all conditions and he gives his all. A captain’s dream.
“If that was to be the case (a debut) it would be a proud day for Aboriginal Australia.”
Boland has taken 37 first-class wickets from his past five matches at the MCG, at an average of 13.22, strike rate of 33.68 and economy of 2.35.
“Australia will probably beat England easily at the MCG. But if Australia wants to win really, really easily, selectors should play Scott Boland,” RSN radio host Adam White tweeted.
“He’s been close to unplayable since Matt Page added more life to the MCG pitch. If it’s horses for courses, Boland should be odds-on.”
Marsh’s burst of incredible form
AAP reports that Perth Scorchers captain Ashton Turner believes it’s just a matter of time before Mitch Marsh is whisked away to rejoin the Australian set-up.
Marsh hasn’t played a Test since 2019, but his scintillating form in white-ball cricket has led to calls for him to be a part of the Ashes.
Finding a way back into the Test squad could be tricky given Australia’s dominance in setting up a 2-0 lead and the strong bowling form of allrounder Cameron Green.
But if Green suffers an untimely injury, the calls for Marsh to be included would be deafening.
Marsh was a key part of Australia’s T20 World Cup triumph and he has carried that hot form into the BBL where he is averaging 103.5 at a strike rate of 154.5 from his three knocks this season.
His latest heroics came on Wednesday night when he cracked 86 off 53 balls in a man-of-the-match performance against the Melbourne Renegades.
“We’ve just got to appreciate and enjoy him being in our team while he’s here, because I’m sure it won’t be long until he’s representing Australia in a lot of formats,” Turner said.
“I think the Australian cricket team would be better off for that.
“It’s fun to watch him bat at the moment. He’s loving his cricket. It’s entertaining. He’s putting on a show for everyone.”
Turner has been impressed with the way Marsh has improved against spin bowling.
“Teams in the past have targeted him with wrist spin, but now he’s almost as dominant against the spin as he is against the quicks with pace on the ball,” Turner said.
“The thing that stands out is it looks almost low risk a lot of his batting. To be scoring as quickly as he is, normally guys are taking a lot of risks.
“But it looks like everything is coming out of the middle of the bat.
“It feels like he’s just playing 50-over cricket almost, and you look up at the scoreboard and he’s striking it at 150, 160 with no sweat.”