A game of numbers is being played to distract from England’s calamitous state. They may be 3-0 down but if the series played at home last summer is taken into account that makes it 3-3 this year, meaning that England can still beat Australia 5-3.
It puts a neat gloss on affairs, but what it cannot disguise is that England are at sixes and sevens. Australia are in absolute raptures about the latest tale of the unexpected to emanate from the opposition camp, to wit the retirement mid-series of the champion off-spinner Graeme Swann.
The Complete Short Stories of Roald Dahl were republished recently but nothing in them suggests the old master of the macabre twist might have come up with the litany of surprises, big and small, which have befallen England on this trip. Opinion was split on Swann’s decision to go before the fourth Test, which begins at the MCG on Boxing Day, but whether it was brave or selfish, it has left England with much to ponder.
No one would now be surprised if others dashed for the exit door. Presumably, though by no means necessarily, that will not be before the series is at least finished. After the fifth Test in Sydney in the first week of the new year, stock will need to be taken all round.
Alastair Cook, the captain, denied on Monday that he was concerned about other retirees. “I don’t fear it,” he said. “No one forces you to play cricket for England. We are very privileged to be in this situation, we know it lasts a short time. You govern that cap for a short time and then someone comes and takes over. It gives another guy an opportunity.
“We have a few guys who have played a lot of cricket but, chatting to them, I would doubt we’ll see that [more retirements]. But these things can happen very quickly.
“We’ve had a lot of success with pretty much the same players,” Cook added, “but eventually the side changes and it gives young players the chance to come in and make a name for themselves and push this England team forward in a different direction. It’s a natural process and it can be a very exciting one.”
So maybe, maybe not then. But no players – oh all right, including Kevin Pietersen about whom rumours continue to swirl – have given Cook reason to believe they will go. Of course, some might have to be pushed if England are to start winning again.
“That’s not right,” Cook said. “I’ve obviously chatted to certain players about this tour and how we move on. It has been a tough tour in terms of results and the standard of cricket we have played and we know it hasn’t been up to the standard we expect. But there are a lot of people desperate to put that right. You’ve seen with the Australian side how quickly things can change. You have to do a lot of hard work on very specific things to get your standards up.”
The tourists must not only replace Swann for the fourth Test – Monty Panesar may well have been preferred anyway – but have other places to consider. There is plenty of talk that Matt Prior will be dropped in favour of Jonny Bairstow, though few consider Bairstow to be anything like a long-term replacement as wicketkeeper-batsman.
Prior’s form is so dire that dropping him would be a merciful release. At 31 it is difficult to believe that his international career is done, but his continuing presence in the side is doing neither him nor his colleagues any good.
As a batsman, he is desperate to show that his natural game is what will help him to emerge from this slough but there is for the moment no rhyme or reason to his choice of what to attack and how to attack it. As a result of his batting woes, his keeping has now suffered.
To drop only Prior, however, and make the wicketkeeper the sole culprit for the whole sorry mess would be to charge the getaway driver at the scene of a bank robbery while letting the safe-blowers walk free. The batsmen – and they think they know who they are – have let England down grievously on this tour and in truth for several Tests before that. They have had an easy ride, which they look like continuing to enjoy.
Nor have the bowlers been up to it, regularly letting the Aussies off the hook. Since his magnificent 10 for 158 in the opening Test of the summer’s Ashes at Trent Bridge, Anderson has taken 19 for 902 in seven Tests, wickets that have come at a cost of 47.47 runs each every 86 balls.
This is not the form of an international bowler and although on occasion Anderson has been desperately unlucky because he remains an arch-manipulator of a cricket ball, Australia have sometimes clambered into him in a way that has made it difficult to look.
With Stuart Broad likely to be unfit with a severely bruised foot, the options are reduced. Boyd Rankin is standing by to make his Test debut, though he has done little on this tour to warrant his promotion yet.
It will be intriguing to see how Anderson, a charming but grumpy introvert, copes without his great friend Swann. The close ties that players form over long England careers should never be underestimated and Anderson will unquestionably feel the loss of his friend and companion.
Two spinners were called into the Test squad as Swann’s replacement yesterday. James Tredwell, the Kent off-break bowler who had already virtually taken Swann’s place in the one-day side, is flying out from England and will join the squad during the Melbourne Test.
With respect to Tredwell, who has proved himself an accomplished limited-overs performer, the other call-up is much more exciting. It is Scott Borthwick, the Durham leg spin bowler, who made immense strides as an upper-order batsman last year as the northern county gloriously won the Championship.
The summons for the pair at least shows that England are being serious both about spin and planning for the future. But Panesar, the squad’s reserve spinner, will play at the MCG on Thursday.