The preparations were interrupted, the First Test was a disaster, a leading batsman has left for home. The squad has spent the past week in the faraway outback being feted by the good folk of rural Australia, which has as much relevance to the welcome they will receive in Adelaide as a village garden party to the Roman coliseum.
To put the three-lions tin lid on it, the tourists produced a largely unsatisfactory performance in Alice Springs in their two-day match against a Chairman’s XI who were but a little way removed from a club side. Options? There are enough options to fuel a bushfire.
England, as personified by the outgoing chairman of selectors, Geoff Miller, who is on his valedictory visit to the team, and the coach, Andy Flower, adhere to the twin pillars of loyalty and continuity. Therefore they may decide to do the minimum possible in amending the team for the Second Test at Adelaide, which starts on Thursday.
Without Jonathan Trott, who sadly departed last Sunday with a stress-related illness after being mugged by Mitchell Johnson in the defeat at Brisbane, they need a new No 3. That will almost certainly be Joe Root, which means they will need a new No 6.
The options start there, dancing before the selectors’ eyes like night stars in the Red Centre. If yesterday’s proceedings at Traeger Park on the second day of a two-day match told us anything, it was that two spinners, pairing Graeme Swann with Monty Panesar, has become a valid consideration.
England have not used two spinners in a Test match in Australia for 22 years, when they drew at Sydney. The most recent occasion at Adelaide was in 1974-75, when Derek Underwood and Fred Titmus combined in the fourth and final defeat of that series, by 163 runs, though Underwood took 11 wickets in the match.
In other words, it would be a gamble, and while the selectors will not take it until they have assessed the state of the new drop-in pitch, they may feel they cannot leave anything until too late. If the Adelaide Oval is slow, then Perth will be quick.
On six of the past eight occasions England have won the Ashes in Australia, dating back to 1911-12, they have also won in Adelaide (and drawn the other two). They have won only once in Perth, venue for the Third Test – in 1978-79, when Australia were fielding a third XI – and have lost eight from 12 altogether. History in cricket is not bunk.
Panesar settled into his groove quickly yesterday, though the standard of batsmen he was bowling against made it difficult to be sure what state his bowling is in. By all accounts he is over the personal demons that dogged his season at home. Ian Bell, who led the side in Alice Springs, was in no doubt that Panesar was ready.
“He set the tone after lunch with that wicket through the gate,” said Bell. “That is exactly how Monty bowls at his best. It was nice to see him settle into that rhythm very quickly, and it is a possibility.
“We have got that flexibility, if we need two spinners, that he can play not just for this tour but going forward as well. We want to see him at his best, we know he’s a quality bowler and we know they can work together but also, you never know, he can keep pushing Swanny for a place. He has worked very hard, he has been fantastic in the group.”
If Swann and Panesar play, it increases the chance of Ben Stokes making his debut as the all-rounder at No 6. Some observers insist that Stokes is far from a Test No 6, but if that were the case the selectors should not have picked him for the tour.
Gary Ballance, the uncapped Yorkshire batsman, has furthered his claim and may well play if it is decided to stick with a four-man bowling attack. It is difficult to believe that Tim Bresnan can come back into the side – for Chris Tremlett – after only one game since recovering from a stress fracture of the back, but he is the sort of well-rounded cricketer who has come to seem integral to the workings of the side.
Of the 21 Tests in which Bresnan has featured, England have lost only two, one to South Africa, one in India. It cannot be entirely coincidental.
This detour to Alice may come to be seen as exactly what was wanted. It is away from the madding crowd in the cultural and series senses, it has allowed a little gentle mulling over, both about the defeat and Trott’s unexpected departure. Trott has missed only one Test match since making his debut in 2009.
England can hardly go to Adelaide to “do it for Trotty”, but in order to show they are truly over him and to have realistic aspirations of winning the series, they must defeat Australia there.
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