In only his ninth Test, Root has seen the future. The time when England can no longer count on three of their finest players – Alastair Cook, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad – might be closer than he had ever imagined. When the next home Ashes campaign starts in 2019, how many of them will still be in the team?
For nearly a decade, England’s success in Test cricket has been built upon the runs of Cook, and Anderson and Broad’s unparalleled mastery of swing and seam. In all likelihood, Root will be asked to ensure England remain an effective Test side without any of them in his XI. Good luck, Joe.
In their 100th Test together, rarely have Anderson and Broad looked so helpless, so utterly incapable of altering the direction of a game. Neither has bowled badly in this series – indeed, Anderson took five for 43 in Australia’s second innings at Adelaide – but as the WACA track became flatter and flatter, they had no answers.
Australia closed day three 549 for four, a lead of 146, with Smith and Marsh posting a record 301 for the fifth wicket. Both made Test-best scores: Smith will resume on Sunday 229 not out, while Marsh is unbeaten on 181.
If Australia were to declare at some stage tomorrow/on Sunday with no more wickets lost, it would produce an unwanted statistic for England’s new-ball pair. In each of their previous 99 Tests together, they have never both gone wicketless in the first innings.
With only 69 runs from five innings in the series, Cook is struggling more than either of them. Where he was once so effective against spin, he has looked incredibly vulnerable against Nathan Lyon’s off-breaks. Even before Lyon joins the attack, Cook appears hesitant against the new ball, particularly full deliveries from Mitchell Starc.
Ashes series focus the mind. If England lose in India, say, or South Africa, players can convince themselves that all will be well if only they can beat Australia. Lose to the old enemy – as England surely will here – and cricketers start to wonder how much longer they should carry on.
Anderson has had one of his best years in Test cricket but he turns 36 in July, and is unlikely to get any better. He has repeated that he wants to be there in 2019. When he returns home after this series, with the Ashes almost certainly back in Australia’s grasp, perhaps he will start to think differently.
The future appears even less certain for Cook and Broad. Though Broad bowled with some of his old punch at both Brisbane and Adelaide, where are those game-breaking spells that used to define him? At times on the third day, one of England’s most feisty players looked crushed.
Graeme Swann, the former England off-spinner, said last summer that he hoped Root would not be given the captaincy, so he could concentrate solely on becoming the best batsman England have ever had. As Root watched the ball whizz across the WACA outfield again and again, he could have been forgiven whether his old team-mate had a point.