England head to an Ashes finale against Australia under lights in Hobart on Friday buoyed by a fighting draw in Sydney, but consumed by injury worries and selection dilemmas.
The tourists finally stopped the rot on a gruelling tour last week with their nail-biting last-wicket hold-out at the SCG to prevent a 5-0 whitewash.
But it came at a price with wicketkeeper Jos Buttler sent home with a fractured finger and experienced pair Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes racing the clock to be fit.
England captain Joe Root said not losing was “hugely important” and he hoped it had turned the tide after three heavy and humiliating defeats in Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne.
“It would have been very easy for us to roll over and feel sorry for ourselves,” he said, after breaking Alastair Cook’s record for most matches in charge when he captained England for the 60th time in Sydney. “But it was up to the guys to put some pride back into the badge and show how much they care about playing for England.”
However, it can’t disguise their still appalling record in Australia with 12 defeats in 14 Tests, with England reduced to celebrating a draw.
Former skipper Michael Atherton said in a column for The Times this week that avoiding a whitewash was “a small mercy”.
“Sober assessment of the fourth Test would stress that Australia declared in both innings and that there were two sessions lost to rain,” he added. “England were second best by a yawning distance.”
Hobart’s Bellerive Oval will host its first Ashes Test after winning the race to replace Perth, which was axed last month over Western Australia state’s tough Covid-19 quarantine rules.
And it will be a day-night pink-ball affair, the second of the series after Adelaide, where Australia crushed England by 275 runs.
At least the visitors can draw inspiration from a better batting performance in Sydney with Bairstow making England’s first century of the series, while Stokes hit a fifty in each innings and opener Zak Crawley scored 77.
But fellow opener Haseeb Hameed once more failed, with Rory Burns a potential replacement.
With Buttler out, Bairstow could take the gloves, but he is battling a right-thumb injury.
As a precaution, England have called up Sam Billings, who has been playing for the Sydney Thunder in the Big Bash League.
With flights deemed too risky given Australia’s rising Covid situation, he had to drive 12 hours from the Gold Coast to Sydney to join the squad and undergo coronavirus testing before flying to Hobart.
“It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster,” he said. We will have to wait and see if that Test cap does come.”
He is no guarantee to make a Test debut with Ollie Pope adequately filling in when Buttler was hurt.
All-rounder Stokes is also a doubt with a left-side strain. Dan Lawrence is his potential replacement.
Australia have their own problems with Melbourne hero Scott Boland needing painkillers to get through the final two days of the fourth Test with a rib injury.
With Josh Hazlewood again ruled out and Jhye Richardson also under an injury cloud, Michael Neser could play.
Selector Tony Dodemaide also admitted there were discussions on whether to risk pace spearhead Mitchell Starc for a fifth straight Test.
“It’s certainly a conversation that we will need to have to see how he pulls up,” he said.
Another key question for Australia is what to do with veteran left-hander Usman Khawaja, who was called up when Travis Head got Covid and smacked a century in each innings in Sydney.
With Head set to return as No 5, Marcus Harris could be the fall guy, with Khawaja promoted to open with David Warner.
Australia captain Pat Cummins suggested there was no way Khawaja could be dropped.
“If someone hits a twin hundred it’s pretty hard to go past them for the week after, I think,” he said.
© Agence France-Presse