As Joe Root stood on the outfield, beneath a pristine blue sky, and spoke of his desire to pluck some kind of phoenix from the Ashes, it was tempting to wonder if he had ever enjoyed a finer moment at the SCG.
That may change during the course of the fourth Test, of course, as he tries to drag a performance from a team who have attracted derision and disappointment from the Australian public in equal measure.
But Sydney remains the only Test venue where Root has been dropped by England, back in 2013-14, and the only Test venue where he has finished flat out in the dressing-room, laid low four years ago by heat exhaustion – temperatures in the middle reached 41 degrees – and gastroenteritis.
Joe Root and England are now in Sydney for the fourth Ashes Test against Australia
The Aussies have already wrapped the series up with three wins in the first three Tests
There is growing scrutiny on Chris Silverwood (second left) and Root’s roles with England
That was the warmest Sydney had experienced since 1939. And although the forecast for this game is mixed, Australia do not intend to make life any less uncomfortable for an England side who continue to talk a good game, then play a bad one.
Root did make 83 and 58 not out in that 2017-18 match, but half-centuries in this part of the world have not been his problem. Now, as he prepares to lead his country for an England-record 60th Test – Alastair Cook managed 59 – he does so against a backdrop that makes the previous two Ashes tours look like strolls in the park.
It’s not simply that Covid continues to hang over the series like a noxious cloud, with Cricket Australia chief executive Nick Hockley the latest to test positive, and the England coaching staff not currently in isolation numbering a grand total of three.
It’s the fact that the tourists’ lack of competitiveness has sparked the kind of debate last aired in the 1990s, when they were in the middle of a run of eight Ashes defeats, and senior Australian journalists wondered if the series ought to be reduced from five or six Tests to three.
And while Root has employed a variety of oratorical themes out here to rouse his players, he remains in search of a winning formula.
After Brisbane, he suggested England were at least into the series after a damp and dismal warm-up. After Adelaide, he said there were no longer any excuses, and demanded a response. It came at Melbourne, though not as he hoped: 68 all out, followed by growing speculation about his future as captain and the fate of head coach Chris Silverwood.
Root will captain England for the 60th time – a record – when he takes to the field in Sydney
Stuart Broad could be recalled to the team as England search for the winning formula
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 Mark Wood, 9 Jack Leach, 10 Stuart Broad, 11 James Anderson.
Australia: 1 David Warner, 2 Marcus Harris, 3 Marnus Labuschagne, 4 Steve Smith, 5 Usman Khawaja, 6 Cameron Green, 7 Alex Carey (wkt), 8 Pat Cummins (capt), 9 Mitchell Starc, 10 Nathan Lyon, 11 Josh Hazlewood.
Now, with England facing the prospect of the fourth 5-0 whitewash in Ashes history – all inflicted by Australia – Root called for an ethos of mutual responsibility.
Sidestepping the question of whether his own gentle nature would be better supplemented by a head coach with more needle and edge, he said: ‘You can look at a number of excuses or find individuals to blame. But collectively we’ve not been good enough.
‘Everyone has responsibility to perform better. Naturally as leaders –myself, Silvers or other management – we will come under fire. But there’s been a lot of hard work gone into trying to prepare this team as well as we can, and it’s been very frustrating we’ve not been able to put that into performances.’
England’s buzz phrase since the MCG fiasco has been ‘putting the pride back in the badge’, as if pride can close the gap between a side with a total of seven batsmen and bowlers in the top 10 of the Test rankings, and a side with two – Root and Jimmy Anderson.
In that respect, Root has drawn on his own Sydney past in an attempt to fortify the present. Remembering how ‘upset and angry’ he was after being dropped eight years ago, prompting him to go away and think about his game, he stressed the need to ‘learn from each other’.
But for all the well-intentioned talk, England have constantly handicapped themselves in more fundamental ways, such as selection. Offered the chance t talk about the omission of Stuart Broad from the first and third Tests, Australia’s vice-captain Steve Smith happily took it.
‘We have been surprised, probably on two wickets that would have suited him well,’ said Smith. ‘They’ve got quality bowlers. He and Jimmy have been world-class performers for a long time. Maybe we’ll see them together this week.’
With Ollie Robinson down on pace at Melbourne, and the SCG surface looking greener than usual two days out from the game, England may recall Broad in his place.
Wholesale changes, though, are unlikely: Silverwood, still isolating with his family in Melbourne, and his stand-in, Graham Thorpe, want to use this game, and the fifth Test at Hobart, to help assess their players’ long-term potential – particularly the likes of Haseeb Hameed and Zak Crawley.
The next two Tests provide a chance for players like Zak Crawley to cement a place in the fold
It’s also an opportunity for Haseeb Hameed to maintain his position as an England opener
Australia, meanwhile, recalled Usman Khawaja to the middle order for his first Test in two years with Travis Head missing due to Covid. Josh Hazlewood, out since Brisbane, was unable to recover from a side injury, so Scott Boland keeps his place after taking six for seven on debut at Melbourne.
As for Root, he was already asking questions of his team. ‘Can we be brave enough?’ he said. ‘Can a couple of guys stand up and take that opportunity to really cement their spots in the team and put that care and emotion about playing for England into performances.
‘These last two games are a big opportunity for the guys to do just that.’