England hope for new beginnings from lost Ashes series

Hobart will finally call time on this gruelling series, but it is also the start of the next chapter. For some, it is a chance to state their cases to be part of it, writes Vithushan Ehantharajah

Thursday 13 January 2022 08:03
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<p>Sam Billings will make his Test debut in Hobart </p>

Sam Billings will make his Test debut in Hobart

There’s a faint whiff of something around the England team right now. It smells a little bit like optimism, but we know it’s not. A vague hint of contentment, even though there is little to be content about.

For all the defiance of the draw at Sydney, the Ashes remain lost. Sure, Australia won’t win this with a whitewash, but the odds on 4-0 ahead of the final Test in Hobart are short. And it is not unreasonable to both congratulate last week’s undoubted courage and surmise a fair bit of luck was involved, not least losing two session’s worth of overs to rain.

But this is usually the time series in Australia are their most painful. When the end is in sight, albeit on the other side of another five days of potential toil and embarrassment. Bodies and spirits are broken, the dressing room a wasteland of plans and relationships, both professional and personal.

Well, much of that remains. Jos Buttler has returned home, while Ben Stokes (left side strain) and Jonny Bairstow (cracked right thumb) are walking wounded, with the former more certain for the XI than the latter. The only alternates are those already burned: Rory Burns, dropped after the first two matches, is set to come in to replace Haseeb Hameed who was given a stay of execution at the time. Ollie Pope, similarly, is said to be on alert should Bairstow not be passed fit.

There will be a post-mortem and, in turn, causalities. Jobs will be lost, players flicked back into the mass of domestic cricket and, for a time at least, forgotten about. The county game, as per, will gets its moment in the dock.

The only real difference to the previous shambles in 2013/14 (5-0) and 2017/18 (4-0) is England do not have a ceremonial leg spinner to chuck in for a one-and-done appearance. Indeed Matt Parkinson might consider himself lucky to be at home given how matters transpired with Scott Borthwick and Mason Crane, both yet to add to those solitary Test caps.

Crane in particular was grasped as a desperate positive, championed for his willing in a dispiriting one for 193 from 48 overs as Australia piled up 649 for seven to win by an innings. The task handed to the 24-year-old was thankless, the only crumb of comfort was he remains measured, ambitions undimmed by the experience, which might have broken others. His own enthusiasm such that this was an opportunity to take, even if it felt like the last body thrown to the lions.

There will still be a new face for the final encounter in Sam Billings, who will become Test cricketer number 700 when he takes the gloves in Buttler’s absence. And though he was called into the squad 90 minutes before getting on a flight back to the UK, before driving 500 miles to join the squad, his selection is not as desperate as it seems.

Aged 30, Billings is hardly a bolt from the blue. As well as 58 limited overs matches for England have been seasons at the IPL and BBL, where he is coming off the back of a productive season with Sydney Thunder.

He has had brief flirtations with Test selection. His name was floated as a reserve wicketkeeper for the Sri Lanka tour of March 2020 (eventually postponed due to the pandemic) after finishing the 2019 summer with three first class hundreds in a row, against Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire, doubling his tally to six. Then, at the start of the 2021 summer, he was drafted in as an injury replacement for Ben Foakes, eventually ticking off another format on what was becoming an all too regular 12th man beat as James Bracey took the gloves.

At the time, it looked like the closest he would get to Test cricket. But such is an Ashes gone awry that he found himself on the right end of this Mayday call with a genuine chance of being part of the future.

There is an argument to be made that Billings’s selection is indicative of the broader issues among the group: a lack of regular first class cricket (he has played just 10 matches across the last three summers) and “too much” white ball in his diet. And of course, not being Ben Foakes.

But right now, he could be many things: a short-term fix to the fortunes if not the mood of a weary group, or the longer-term fix. He is, through his route to this point in his career and the circumstances that led to his debut, the embodiment of new opportunities for both those inside and outside the system. Those who, right now, have the benefit of distance on their side. Speculative solutions to systemic problems, wistful remedies to deep-rooted ills.

Hobart will finally call time on this gruelling series, but it also will be the start of the next chapter. For Billings, even Burns and Pope, the next week is a chance to state their cases to be included in these pages.

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