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

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Simon Heffer -

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

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