When Australia and England take to the field at 10am today, it will be 18 days since Mitchell Starc famously wiped out the leg stump of opener Rory Burns with the first ball of the first test in Brisbane.
Even then the strike felt seminal, and Starc’s aggression has set the tone for an England team that already appears doomed, very possibly to a 5-0 series defeat.
Right now, all is not well with a visiting side that looks odds-on to crumble at even the hint of misfortune. Australia will, of course, prey on the weak spots, but much of England’s frailty is coming from within.
The rot is not new. Under coach Chris Silverwood, England has won just one of its past 11 Tests and the matches at the Gabba and Adelaide have been notable for failures in batting (no big scores or extended partnerships) and consistently short and ineffective bowling. The captaincy merits of Joe Root, England’s best player, are being increasingly questioned too.
Throw in queries over the mental fortitude of spinner Jack Leach, mercilessly targeted in Brisbane, and of opener Rory Burns, so scarred by Starc that he chose not to face the opening ball in that second innings, and this is far from a Christmas of choice.
It is a sign perhaps of England’s standing that criticism from past players and the media is not seen as injudicious or petty sniping.
Even Root has had a pop at his bowlers, stressing the need to pitch the ball further up after the Adelaide pummelling, a mantra his strike force is either ignoring or incapable of rectifying. Former test captains Mike Atherton and Ricky Ponting are unimpressed. If they’re not listening, then get them off is Ponting’s take.
To make matters worse for Root, there have been chortles that when he was off the field of play early on the fourth day in Adelaide, England were better organised during vice-captain Ben Stoke’s brief tenure.
Root has selection quandaries with Burns, Leach, Ollie Pope and Chris Woakes all woeful at times this tour while veteran bowlers Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad failed to ignite the strike force in Adelaide after not playing in Brisbane.
There is hope. England’s fastest bowler Mark Wood, rested in Adelaide, should take to a MCG wicket that will offer more grass than four years ago and Stokes and Root remain world-class competitors.
It’s the brittleness that will most worry England fans whose side has resembled rabbits not just under the floodlights but under any Australian light.
In the home camp by contrast, all is well.
Pre-match, coach Justin Langer talked about the depth of Australian bowling, and the strength of character they inhabit. A “nursery of bowlers” he called it.
Langer said Starc, his side’s senior bowler in Adelaide in the absence of Pat Cummins and the injured Josh Hazlewood, stood up to the plate.
“I honestly thought Mitch was almost man of the match last game, his resilience to do over after over, the way he controlled the tempo of the game,” he said.
“He became the leader of the team.”
Harris to start
Loyalty counts with Langer, with maligned opener Marcus Harris yet to kickstart his series but certain to start today.
“He will play in the Test – this is his home ground. He hasn’t made the runs he would want but he dominates domestic cricket,” said Langer.
“He is a fantastic bloke to have around the squad. He brings a good energy to the team.
“One of the most important things in life is knowing that people have got your back. Marcus Harris is important to the team as an opening batsman. The building block of a great team is the opening partnership or top three.”
Winning is not only about backing your own. Nobbling Root – yet to score a ton in Australia and displaced this week at the top of the ICC world batting order by Marnus Labuschagne – is high on the MCG to-do list.
“He is a brilliant player and we have spent a lot of time working out how to get on top of Joe,” said Langer.
“It’s always been a philosophy of the Australia cricket team to put as much pressure on the captain as possible.”
Changes, on both sides, from the last test will reveal much, a home 11 seamlessly substituting players and an England selection that will be prone to being picked over the minute it starts to go wrong, whoever plays.
England lacking heavyweights
Meanwhile, positives abound for Australia. The addition of Victoria’s Scott Bowland to the squad brings a spiritual boost to the Melbourne crowd while bowlers Jhye Richardson (5-42 in Adelaide’s second innings) and Michael Neser will know that any exclusion this summer is a reflection on the seniority of Cummins or Hazlewood only.
Remarkably, it is 35 years since England won a Boxing Day test, when Mike Gatting’s men, boasting a middle order of Ian Botham, David Gower and Alan Lamb, saw off Australia by an innings and when Stuart Broads’s dad (Chris) posted an opening knock of 112.
It is a heavyweight roster England now lack with star bowler Jimmy Anderson pushing 40 and Broad at 35, unlikely to tour Australia again. It’s all a bit of muddle.
Indeed as England’s Jos Buttler put up an extraordinary rearguard fight on the final day of the Adelaide test, an email dropped into the inbox of all media present. It was simply a listing of Australia’s playing squad, six days ahead of today’s test.
It is a certainty that England has not displayed anywhere this Ashes. And until that is somehow resolved, a third test win, not to say a series whitewash, looms for Australia.