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Stokes, Bairstow racing clock to be fit for Ashes finale: Root

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12th January, 2022
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Star duo Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow are no guarantee to back up for England in the final Test in what could be a hammer blow to Joe Root’s chances of salvaging some Ashes pride.

Root on Wednesday said England’s two best performers from the drawn fourth Test were still under an injury cloud after a bruising time in the middle at the SCG.

England’s medicos will monitor the duo in the countdown to Friday’s day-nighter at Hobart’s Blundstone Arena as the tourists look to avoid losing the series 4-0 following a morale-boosting draw in Sydney in which they avoided defeat by one wicket in easily their best performance of the tour.

Root said no decision had been made on whether Stokes (side strain) or Bairstow (thumb) would be fit but said he would have no qualms if they both played as specialist batters. Stokes is unlikely to be able to bowl while Bairstow is a possible contender to replace Jos Buttler as keeper after he returned to England with a hand injury.

Stokes and Bairstow are keen to play but Root said the English camp would give the final say to their medical staff. Stokes hit a half-century in each innings while Bairstow hit an emotional ton, which he reached during the last over of day three.

The pair were also embroiled in a slanging match with an abusive fan as they made their way to the English dressing rooms during their 128-run first-innings partnership.

“They need to make sure they feel like they’re physically in a place where they can get through five days of hard cricket, whatever Australia throw at them,” he said.

“In a position where they can go out and play and firstly get through the game but also most importantly put in a performance that they managed to do last week as well.

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“It’s alright being fit to play but you’ve got to be fit to perform and that’s what we’ve got to work out.”

Sam Billings has been added to the squad after playing for the Sydney Thunder in the BBL and the keeper-batter is a chance of making his Test debut, which would make him the 700th Englishman in history to achive the honour.

“As always when he’s around the group he brings a lot of energy, constantly smiling. He loves his cricket, he’s a great guy to have around the environment and I’m sure if he gets his opportunity he will throw everything into his opportunity.

“It’s nice to have him here and he will be wanting to get stuck in the next couple of days at training to show us what he’s got.”

Ollie Pope is also in contention for a recall and he could also be handed the keeping gloves after subbing in for the second innings in Sydney.

Root said he was proud of his team’s resilience in the fourth Test after they had to deal with a COVID outbreak among their support staff – including coach Chris Silverwood – as well as the injuries and the barrage of criticism they’ve copped from home and aboard on the back of three straight thrashings.

Veteran duo Stuart Broad and James Anderson blocked out the last over to avoid defeat after opener Zak Crawley, Bairstow, Stokes and tailender Jack Leach had earlier stood up to the Australian attack.

“If you look at the week that we had, the amount of different things that were thrown at the group of players, whether it be COVID leading into the game, a couple of injuries that we had to manage throughout the game as well, I think it shows a lot about where we’re at as a team at the back of three very difficult games where we’ve underperformed, now shown the best of our skills and our performance as a team,” he said.

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“To come back and get something from that game showed a great amount of character, something definitely for us to build on moving forward whether it’s this game or beyond.

“There was an element of relief managing to get through those last few overs in particular, the desire to fight, the pride everyone showed out there on that last day in particular is something we have to harness.

“And we have to play with more frequently throughout the five days, not just on the last day when everything’s on the line trying to get something from the game. But from ball one as well.

“We’ve proven to ourselves that we can do that now – can we take that next step further? Can we do that in a winning state rather than just trying to save a Test match? That’s what we have to build on, that’s what we have to take from that last game into this one.”

Root said it had been important to give the players a chance over the past couple of days to “decompress, to get away from the cricket and relax, making sure they’re mentally fresh”.

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After making back-to-back tons in his comeback Test after a two-year absence, Australia are weighing up whether to retain Usman Khawaja ahead of opener Marcus Harris or middle-order specialist Travis Head.

Root expects Khawaja to pad up in Tasmania.

“I was surprised he didn’t start the series personally, I think he’s a wonderful player,” he said.

“I think as well he’s at a period of his career where he’s very content with his game and he’s got a good understanding of how he wants to play. We’ve got some work to do to make sure we keep him quiet in this last game.

“It was a phenomenal effort, what he managed to achieve. Last week was truly brilliant. We need to make sure we keep him quiet as best we can here in Tasmania.”

Hobart reminds Root of home but said whatever the conditions are on game day, they need to adapt better than their previous four starts on tour.

“We have got to make sure we apply ourselves quicker and better than we’ve done on this tour,” he said.

“I think Australia have done that four times now where they’ve utilised the conditions and read them better than we have and it’s an opportunity for us to turn that around this week.”

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