Joe Root’s first Ashes tour as England cricket captain has been more eventful than he expected, just not in the way he had hoped. “I knew it would be challenging, and I knew there would be stuff around the cricket, but not to this extent,” Root said of the off-field issues that have followed his squad around Australia. “I’m fed up of talking about stuff that’s not cricket. I don’t know how I’ve still got all my hair … I can completely see how captaincy can take its toll.”
England trail the five-test series 2-0 after losses in Brisbane and Adelaide. Australia can clinch the series with a win at the WACA ground in a match that will also mark England opener Alastair Cook’s 150th test. Only one team in Ashes history has rallied from 2-0 down to win the series: Don Bradman’s Australia in 1936-37 at home.
Root has faced more questions about the team’s conduct and curfew than its cricket. Ben Stokes’ involvement in an incident outside a bar in England in September has resulted in the allrounder being suspended from England duties while police determine whether charges will be laid.
Recent alcohol-fuelled incidents involving wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow and Ben Duckett, who is traveling with England’s second-tier squad, have only added to the focus on off-field issues. The latest episode, in which Duckett poured a drink on the head of veteran pace bowler Jimmy Anderson, came on a night when team officials had relaxed a midnight curfew.
“I feel like I’ve learned a large amount.” Root said. “The lads have to wake up and smarten up. It’s been frustrating … very frustrating. Guys have made silly mistakes that of course are going to get blown out of proportion.” Root, who took over the captaincy in July and led England in seven tests against South Africa and the West Indies at home, is desperate to avoid a repeat of the series sweep on the last tour to Australia in 2013-14 and is urging his teammates to lift “for one of the biggest games of our lives” in the third test.
He’ll be looking for support from Cook, already England’s most-capped test player, who has no plans to retire just yet. “Do I have a desire to carry on? Absolutely,” the 32-year-old lefthander said this week. “I wouldn’t be going to do extra gym sessions and extra batting behind closed doors if I wasn’t.”
Cook, who was England captain in 59 tests until December last year, has been below form so far on the Ashes tour. In Brisbane he made nine runs and in Adelaide 37 and 16. Another player in a form slump is Australian batsman Peter Handscomb, who is facing being axed for the third test. Local media have suggested selectors will replace Handscomb with tall Western Australia allrounder Mitch Marsh.
On Wednesday, Australia captain Steve Smith said the home side will wait until Thursday morning, before the toss, to finalize the starting lineup. “We haven’t picked the team yet,” Smith said. “It’ll be unlucky if he (Handscomb) misses out. If we do go down that route it’s purely for the reason we think we need an extra bowler, nothing to do with anybody’s batting.”
Handscomb has scored 14, 36 and 12 in his three innings, and commentators have criticized the awkwardness of his batting technique. Bairstow, who was Handscomb’s former teammate at English county Yorkshire, thinks the Australian should be given another chance.
“Everyone’s been through difficult times, whether that be with the bat or anything,” Bairstow said. “It won’t be the first time someone is going through a bit of a lean patch. You’re also there to win a game of cricket … (but) there’s a mutual respect with it.”