Two-nil down and with a harried captain insisting his team was neither dead nor buried, there was an unnerving sense of deja vu at the WACA as England made their final preparations on the eve of the third Ashes Test on Wednesday. Four years on from the last doomed trip to Western Australia, Joe Root led a mostly different set of players through their drills under a big Perth sky while facing the same unenviable predicament as his predecessor Alastair Cook.
The glorious weather did little to ease a feeling of foreboding surrounding Root’s team, one that also weighed on Cook’s England before their meek surrender in 2013-14. The tourists need a draw to keep the five-match series alive before they head to Melbourne, but holders England have not managed one in over 30 years at the WACA, where they have lost their past seven Tests in succession.
Like his former captain Cook, still present as an out-of-form opening batsman, Root has endured a tour Down Under littered with distractions and tawdry off-field problems. He has also echoed Cook’s words from the last tour, insisting his side can defy 80 years of history and join Don Bradman’s Australia as the only team to come back from 2-0 down to win an Ashes series.
A 150-run thrashing followed days after Cook’s backs-to-the-wall bravado, along with the ignominy of handing back the coveted urn with two Tests to spare. Root’s rallying cry might prove just as futile but on Wednesday, at least, the young captain was adamant his team was better equipped than Cook’s to pull off something “special”.
“I think we’re in a much better place this time round if I’m being brutally honest,” said Root, who was a 22-year-old middle order rookie during the 5-0 whitewash of 2013-14.
“The guys have got a really clear idea of where they want to go and how they’re going to look to play. I’m not sure that was quite the same the last time round. I think we were a bit more shell-shocked about how things had turned out.”
Much of England’s shell-shock was delivered by Australia’s man-of-the-series Mitchell Johnson, who grabbed six of his 37 wickets at the WACA with his intimidating left-arm pace. None of Australia’s current pace trio of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins have enjoyed Johnson-style dominance yet, but each have made vital contributions and denied England’s batsmen a morale-boosting century.
Root said it was up to senior players like he and Cook to lead the way with big scores at the WACA but in truth, the pitch might ultimately prove to be the most decisive actor. The WACA’s traditional bounce and pace once played into the hands of Australia’s fast men for decades but recent years have seen it lose potency.
Australia and New Zealand’s batsmen dominated a bore-draw two years ago, and the home side were beaten by South Africa last year after the Proteas set a mammoth 539-run victory target. The home side’s quicks have had fingers crossed this week for a reprise of the WACA wickets of old and while curator Matt Page left grass on the pitch to give them some hope, captain Steve Smith seemed disappointed with the surface on Wednesday.
“Probably not as hard as I would have liked it to be a day out but 24 hours can change a wicket and we’ll have another look in the morning,” he told reporters after a Test-eve inspection. It delayed Smith from naming his side, though he suggested Western Australia all-rounder Mitchell Marsh might be in line for a recall, most likely at the expense of number five batsman Peter Handscomb.