England have swung the axe for their must-win Boxing Day Test against Australia, making four changes to the team in Melbourne.
Most significantly, the tourists have lost patience with their misfiring batting unit, benching Surrey duo Rory Burns and Ollie Pope in favour of the returning Zak Crawley and Jonny Bairstow.
Elsewhere, the bowling has been rotated once again with Mark Wood back after being rested in Adelaide and left-arm spinner Jack Leach recalled to the XI. Chris Woakes and Stuart Broad make way.
Burns and Pope have endured a lean start to the series, which England trail 2-0 after thrashings in the first two Tests, with opener Burns making 51 runs at 12.75 and Pope 48 runs at 12 from number six.
The pair held their places when England kept faith with a flimsy top seven despite a poor showing in Brisbane, but a repeat performance in the day/night Test at Adelaide has sent head coach Chris Silverwood and captain Joe Root scrambling for replacements.
Burns was clean bowled by the very first ball of the tour, but showed some signs of warming up to the series with a battling 34 in his last innings. With Crawley’s return hastened by some impressive showings in the nets England may have considered dropping Burns’ opening partner Haseeb Hameed instead, but have backed the younger man.
The number 31 may have counted against Burns in three factors – it is his age, his number of caps and his rounded-up Test average. He is the only England player other than Joe Root to hit a Test century in 2021, against New Zealand at Lord’s, but has also been dismissed for nought on six separate occasions and judgement may now have been passed that he has plateaued as an international player.
Pope is a different matter. England remain convinced that the 23-year-old is the brightest prospect of his generation but his progress has stalled and, after 22 caps, his repeated struggles to build long innings have become an insurmountable problem. His average dipped below 30 in Adelaide and, while he is certain to be seen again, some rethinking of his methods may be required.
The cavalry’s statistics do not tell a hugely encouraging tale either, Crawley lost his place after averaging a wince-inducing 11.14 in 2021, and Bairstow has a top score of 57 in 15 innings this year.
While that is concerning, England hope that Crawley’s height and tendency to play the ball late will prove well suited to Australian conditions and that Bairstow’s experience can carry him through a return in front of 70,000 fans at the MCG. He is on his third Ashes tour in Australia and scored a century in Perth four years ago.
England trained on Christmas Day at the MCG, but were joined by family members at the ground in a relaxed morning, mingling with wives and partners on the outfield as a handful of the team’s children showed off their own cricketing skills.
The real business was close at hand, though, and Jos Buttler – who will retain the wicketkeeping gloves ahead of Bairstow – knows what is required to keep the Ashes alive.
“We’re certainly not here to just take part and let 70,000 people enjoy another Australian victory,” he said.
“We have to fight back, we want to win the series and we want to win this Test match. We’ll take that ‘backs against the wall’ attitude because that’s what we need to have.
“I’m sure it will be a hostile environment here but that’s to be embraced and enjoyed, everyone is excited to be here. We know we need to bring our best cricket because we haven’t done that so far and that’s disappointing. With the situation we’re in, we need to get there fast.
“This is why you play the game, because you want to be part of big occasions. It isn’t always going to be easy, but you need to turn up in tough situations and play well when it’s hard.”