Root can draw hope from the greatest ever Ashes comeback
If England are to recover from going 2-0 down, the touring captain must emulate the victory that Don Bradman inspired in his men
There will be a few very old men left who will recall, as schoolboys, reading the newspaper reports of the 1936-37 series between Australia and England. Don Bradman was in his pomp; England included Wally Hammond and Hedley Verity; and it was the first time England had toured Down Under since the Bodyline series four years earlier.
Britain was in turmoil; King Edward VIII abdicated the day after the first Test finished in Brisbane. But what was most remarkable about the cricket is that England won the first two Tests and yet lost the series: the only time in Ashes history this has happened, and the reverse of what must happen now.
In the first Test at Brisbane, England won by 322 runs, having bowled out Australia for 58 in the second innings. At Sydney, the visitors triumphed by an innings and 22 runs, having removed Australia in the first innings for 80. The tide turned at Melbourne, Thursday, for it is only then when a loss will mean England cannot retain the Ashes.
The side’s humiliation in the first two games is, if anything, less than Australia endured in the opening pair of Tests 81 years ago. And if Root were to have admitted defeat, the demoralising effect on his team could have been catastrophic, especially when young players such as Mark Stoneman, Dawid Malan, James Vince and Craig Overton need a reminder that a few moments of glory in adverse circumstances such as these can set up long and magnificent Test careers. There appeared to be moments at Brisbane and Adelaide, and, indeed, even before the series began, when England had run up the white flag in terms of psychology, against David Warner’s idiotic and infantile screechings about “war” and “hatred”.
However, there were moments on the third and fourth days at Adelaide when the psychological high ground had, once more, been captured. After the dismal performance by England’s batsmen in the first innings, and the huge lead recorded by Australia, it took gumption and belief to set about the Australian batsmen in the way England’s bowlers, and fielders, did. It was a tremendous achievement to dismiss them for 138, by some way the lowest score of the match; but it only happened because of focus, determination and conviction.
England were enormously helped by Steve Smith’s refusal to enforce the follow-on, which otherwise (given how England had played up to that point) could have ended the game in little over three days. Throughout the series thus far, it had seemed that Smith held all the strategic and tactical cards: that seemed to me the moment when the initiative passed to Root, and he took it.
Root will have learned much from Adelaide, and his tactical thinking, especially, will have been improved by what he observed, not just on his own side, but on Australia’s. There were moments at Brisbane when one wondered whether the creative anarchy that seems to underpin the management and conduct of the England team these days had slightly turned the captain’s head; there were bizarre field placings and even more bizarre bowling changes. That was less evident at Adelaide, perhaps not least because once England began to shred Australia in the second innings, a basic truth became obvious: which is that, man for man, Australia are not that much better a side – if indeed a better side at all – than England. Once Root and his men grasped that, what may have been a sense of inferiority or panic (both of which are intensely psychologically draining) retreated, allowing the players to concentrate solely on doing their best. And, up to a point, it worked.
I suspect Root realises the opportunity Smith extended when refusing to enforce the follow-on. One hears all the arguments for this – the bowlers are tired and need a rest – but one fears that on many occasions there is some pressure put on captains for commercial reasons. Enforcing the follow-on normally shortens the game and, therefore, risks lowering the match receipts. However, to have put a fragile England in under the lights could, had their top order buckled as Australia’s did, have sealed the psychological supremacy of the home side for the rest of the series.
England do not enjoy the same conditions Allen’s side did in 1936-37. Australia’s players were able to go off and play Sheffield Shield cricket between Tests to get their form back, and the last three Tests were played over a period of two months, allowing plenty of time for match practice. England have a two-day game in Perth this weekend against a Cricket Australia XI. Then there are three Tests on the trot, crammed in to allow five one-day internationals. So, Root has virtually no serious match practice in which to continue to improve the concentration and motivation of his team: it must all be done in the cauldron of the Waca.
Much has been written about the indiscipline of the England team, a climate of behaviour that has led to the absence of Ben Stokes from the side, with all that entails. One must hope that after the signs of improvement in Adelaide, Root’s job in maintaining discipline – for it is his responsibility – and getting the best from his bowlers and batsmen will be easier, for morale should be higher. Of course, unlike Australia in 1936-37, we do not have a Bradman. But we need to believe that the modern equivalent can yet emerge, and it may well be Root himself.
Under pressure: Joe Root needs to bat to the very best of his ability for England to stand any chance in this series