If Joe Root has admitted more than once that this Ashes series will define his legacy as England captain, then the moment of truth is arriving with unpleasant haste.
After less than nine days’ cricket, Australia find themselves in the luxurious position of needing just one more draw from the last three games to retain the urn.
Should that arrive as early as the Boxing Day showpiece at Melbourne, they will add another triumph to the 4-0 thumping in 2017-18 that already stains Root’s c.v.
Joe Root insists he is not thinking about his future as England captain despite a dreadful run
Root chars with England batting coach Graham Thorpe in the Melbourne nets on Thursday
In between came a 2-2 draw in 2019, the first time Australia had not lost in England since 2001.
It all adds up to a grim Ashes ledger for Root’s captaincy, with two wins out of 12 outweighed by eight defeats. One thing is clear: if his team don’t fight back on Sunday, he will not get a fourth crack of the whip.
Does he believe his captaincy is on the line? ‘I’ll worry about that at the end of the series,’ he said. ‘All I can control is the next game. Those decisions are above my head, but I’ll make sure we show a lot more this time.’
After defeat at Adelaide, Root gave his team both barrels. Now, ahead of an MCG Test that looms as menacingly as any of his previous 58 as captain, he is doing his best to convince them they really can live with Australia. If the carrot proves as ineffective as the stick, England may soon be looking for a new leader.
ENGLAND: 1 Haseeb Hameed, 2 Zak Crawley, 3 Dawid Malan, 4 Joe Root (capt), 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Jonny Bairstow, 7 Jos Buttler (wkt), 8 Ollie Robinson, 9 Mark Wood, 10 Jack Leach, 11 James Anderson.
AUSTRALIA: 1 David Warner, 2 Marcus Harris, 3 Marnus Labuschagne, 4 Steve Smith, 5 Travis Head, 6 Cameron Green, 7 Alex Carey (wkt), 8 Pat Cummins (capt), 9 Mitchell Starc, 10 Jhye Richardson, 11 Nathan Lyon.
‘There was a lot of frustration, purely because of the basic mistakes we’ve been making,’ he said. ‘But, as I said to the group, I don’t think Australia are that much better than us in these conditions. If we perform anywhere like we can do, we will put them in an uncomfortable position.’
Depending on your perspective, Root’s confidence is either Churchillian or Custer’s Last Stand. What he won’t countenance is another surrender, after England lost the first two Tests by nine wickets and 275 runs.
‘Whenever you go 2–0 down in a five-match series, you have to show resilience and not feel sorry for yourself. We have to show we are a far better team than that,’ Root added.
His team-mates, he believes, share his confidence. ‘I think the last day at Adelaide was proof. But coming as close as we did to getting something from the game was frustrating, because it should have been there from the start.’
Not everyone who featured in the first two Tests will get the chance to make immediate amends.
Jonny Bairstow is set to return to England’s batting line-up in place of Ollie Pope
Zak Crawley is also set to return to England’s team as they look to avoid another collapse
Zak Crawley and Jonny Bairstow will attempt to boost a batting line-up dismissed for fewer than 250 on 14 occasions in 2021 alone, with the Surrey duo of Rory Burns and Ollie Pope – who have both averaged 12 – making way.
Mark Wood is certain to return after his mind-bending omission from the last Test, and England may revisit the left-arm spin of Jack Leach, who played at Brisbane when he shouldn’t have, and didn’t play at Adelaide when he should.
‘He has used the time to gain real clarity on how he needs to go about things in these conditions,’ said Root, after his spinner disappeared for 102 runs in 13 overs at the Gabba. ‘If he gets the chance to play here, he needs to understand how they are going to approach him and what he needs to combat that.’
If Wood and Leach are recalled, Chris Woakes will make way after taking three wickets at 76 in the first two Tests, while Stuart Broad’s place could be in danger after his two wickets at Adelaide cost 50 apiece.
It is sobering to think, though, that such considerations may be moot if Root fails with the bat. Only he and Dawid Malan — who on Thursday spoke of the ‘brutal’ nature of touring Australia — have averaged over 27 here. And in both games, their century stands have been followed by eye-watering collapses: eight for 74 at Brisbane, eight for 86 at Adelaide.
Root himself is desperate to score not only an England-record seventh Test century of the year, but his first in Australia. And while he refuses to pay too much heed to the second narrative, he believes he has it under control.
Jack Leach could be given a second chance after he struggled in the first Test in Brisbane
Mark Wood is certain to play after his surprise omission from the second Test in Adelaide
‘I’m confident in these next three games that I can bang out a hundred,’ he said. ‘I feel I am in a really good place with my batting. I know that’s a brave thing to say, but my conversion rate this year has not been an issue.’
Almost passing unnoticed out here in Melbourne is the return as Australia captain of Pat Cummins at a venue where four Tests have brought him 21 wickets at 18 — including six for 27 against India and five for 28 against New Zealand.
Many of the questions aimed at head coach Justin Langer concerned the form of Australia’s struggling opener Marcus Harris, and the delayed introduction into the attack on the fifth day at Adelaide of all-rounder Cameron Green. If only England’s headaches were so specific and so few.
Instead, Root was left to explain whether he found it easy to get angry with his players.
‘I did at the end of the last game, because of the manner in which we lost,’ he said. ‘I’ll always try to look at things with a level, pragmatic approach, but I don’t think you could after the way we played those last two games.
‘I expect a response from everyone this week, to bring a nice Christmas present home for everyone who stays up to watch.’
Root agreed he had to pick his moments to let rip, before adding: ‘I just hope it’s not too late.’