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Weaknesses remain in Australia’s Ashes armour despite crushing win

“I’m not just trying to make things up. I genuinely believe that if we’d taken our chances better, and handled that first innings better, we could be sat here in a very different position.”

It would be easy to disparage Joe Root’s post-Brisbane comments as obvious and not useful, but the England captain’s press conference was one of his stronger displays. Root’s media appearances can often be limp, conciliatory towards nothing in particular, couching each defeat in terms of lessons that England need to learn while leading a team that never learns them. In the Carl Rackemann Indoor Centre beneath the Gabba, next to the nets and the workout equipment, Root was exercised, punchy, obviously deeply frustrated with that opening Ashes loss.

He dismissed the criticism that he was wrong to bat first, and fairly so. Hindsight punditry is a hollow pursuit. Making an opponent bat last is almost always the best option, and getting through some tricky batting hours on day one is routinely the price required. The fact that England failed to do does not mean they were wrong to try. Root could not have known that the Australians would be spared the same conditions by the arrival of rain, nor that the following days would be sunny and fair when the forecast suggested otherwise.

He would have been as frustrated with his own duck in that first innings as he was frustrated that nobody but Dawid Malan could contribute alongside him in England’s second. As for the angst about leaving out Stuart Broad, bowling selections don’t mean much when you’re out for 147 first. Broad monstered Australia’s opener David Warner in England in 2019, but he spent five Tests bowling to Warner in Australia in 2017-18 and didn’t get him once. Warner made 441 runs that series averaging 63. As Root pointed out, his bowlers this time created chances, but his team dropped catches, missed run-outs, and overstepped the front line.

Where he was most staunch was in refusing to concede that England’s tour would now fall away. Defeats at the Gabba led to scorelines of 5-0 in 2006-07, 5-0 in 2013/14, and 4-0 in 2017-18, an overall scoreline of 15-3 in the last four Australian Ashes series. Having played in the last two of those defeats, he said that he was as conscious of the trend as he was determined to make sure that it would not repeat.

England’s Rory Burns spills a catch at the Gabba. Fielding errors cost England in the first Test along with inadequate batting.
England’s Rory Burns spills a catch at the Gabba. Fielding errors cost England in the first Test along with inadequate batting. Photograph: Dan Peled/AFP/Getty Images

Words are only words, but there is reason to believe that the current Australian team can be tackled. This is not a collection of proven champions in the manner of teams past. Warner will enter the Adelaide Test hampered by bruised ribs from a blow while batting. Steve Smith didn’t make a score in Brisbane. Marcus Harris, Travis Head and Alex Carey are all left-handers susceptible to nicking the ball. Cameron Green is young and yet to produce an influential Test innings. Start well, and pressure can be applied.

While England have Broad and James Anderson to return to the team, having already got well under way on bowler rotation, Australia rely heavily on the main pace trio of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, and captain Patrick Cummins. Hazlewood is likely to miss Adelaide with a minor muscle strain. Of the squad replacements, Michael Neser has never played a Test and Jhye Richardson played two, nearly three years ago.

The principal problem for England on recent tours has been letting mid-tier players produce dominant performances in a manner far above their more modest overall achievements. The brothers Shaun and Mitchell Marsh made bulk runs in the previous Australian Ashes, wicketkeeper Brad Haddin did the same in the one before that – the most runs ever in a series by a player outside the top six. Head has already produced the first such display with his attacking 154 that all but sealed the match this week. Here is where England must tighten the screws until the thread squeaks.

Which is not to say that Australia can’t boss the series from here. The quality is there for it to pan out that way, and the script of the Brisbane Test hit all of the right cues to set it up. England’s batting is weak and the fielding from those batters is just as bad. There are multiple players in England’s top six who would be recording negative scores in indoor cricket. There is an indoor centre in Toowoomba that also used to bear Carl Rackemann’s name – best to give that one a wide berth.

But if some of those players can dredge up some resistance, the case for a walkover transpiring is not so clear. These teams are closer than they look, but one has the comforts of home and the other is travelling on a tour that can become a mobile siege. A few more England players need to capture the frustration, the determination, the unusual steeliness that their captain showed after the match after his far more usual steel out in the middle. Bring that to Adelaide, and there lies the chance of making the old story change.

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