England captain Alastair Cook marked his 29th birthday Christmas day, yet found little cause for celebration this year, on the eve of the fourth Ashes Test against Australia.
The picturesque Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), home to some of Australia’s most famous cricket victories, is all ready to host what could be a record first day turn-out in a Boxing Day Test.
But Cook’s, and England’s, thoughts would be hardly on anything other than their own fortunes.
Down and under
An Ashes series that promised so much has all but fizzled out with Australia taking an unassailable 3-0 lead. But the fourth Test offers some intrigue as to whether England will continue to self-destruct or salvage some pride from a turbulent campaign.
Arriving as comfortable winners of the Ashes series in England earlier this year, Cook’s team has had problems galore Down Under, with spiritless efforts in the field and problems off it.
Graeme Swann’s retirement this week, cast as selfless by the spinner but slammed as gutless by a critical British media, has only added to the air of a team in disarray.
The Coliseum-like MCG might be the world’s loneliest place for a team attempting to regroup after passing a sombre Christmas.
England belted Australia in their last MCG meeting to retain the Ashes in 2010-11, but the hosts have humiliated India and Sri Lanka in the two Tests at the ground since.
Sri Lanka’s innings and 201-run defeat last year included seamer Mitchell Johnson taking six wickets, while breaking the forefinger of master batsman Kumar Sangakkara and the thumb of wicketkeeper Prasanna Jayawardene in a man-of-the-match performance.
Michael Clarke has already served a chilling warning to the vitistors, vowing to lead an all-out assault for a 5-0 whitewash.
“People have been asking me how we’re going to approach the Boxing Day Test after already winning back the Ashes,” skipper Clarke wrote in his Tuesday column for The Telegraph.
“The answer is easy - full throttle,” he said in what the daily called the “blueprint for Ashes whitewash”.
“Momentum is a rare and precious commodity. When you have it you run with it as hard as you can because you’re never sure how long it will last.”
Australia’s in-form opening batsman David Warner also said, “We’re playing good cricket at the moment. We need to really drive it into England."
The pint-sized Warner’s turnaround has been symbolic of Australia’s revival from their own forgettable campaign in England, which started with a coach’s sacking and ended in an ignominious 0-3 series defeat.
Exiled for two Tests after punching England batsman Joe Root at a bar in the lead-up, the pugnacious 27-year-old has struck two centuries and an unbeaten 83 Down Under to add steel to a previously brittle batting order.
Days after Warner controversially described Jonathan Trott’s cheap dismissals in the series-opener in Brisbane as “pretty poor and pretty weak”, the out-of-sorts England number three left the tour to deal with a stress-related illness.
Warner can claim no small credit for the retirement of Swann, having shown his team mates the way by blasting the spinner’s second ball of the series over his head for four, a portent of what lay ahead for the 34-year-old.
By announcing his retirement, Swann further destabilised the England camp by remarking that some current players were “up their own backsides”, a comment interpreted by British media as a parting shot at some of his team mates.
Swann later clarified that he was referring to non-England players in his column in Britain’s The Sun newspaper.
Swann’s retirement robs England of a seasoned campaigner, a sharp fielder, solid tactician and perhaps more critically, a rare voice of levity in an often tense dressing room.
Stepping into the breach is Monty Panesar, whose return to the Test team in Adelaide yielded match figures of 2-198 and two fluffed catching chances that ultimately cost over 100 runs.
The Luton-born left-armer becomes his team’s top spinner again, five years after relinquishing that title to Swann. But if he fails again, this could very well be Monty’s last Ashes series.
Many of England’s other selections remain a lottery. Few have performed consistently.
Team director Monty Panesar, who may be another casualty of this tour, said all positions were up for review.
Wicketkeeper Matt Prior, who has had a dreadful series behind the stamps and at the crease, is on the most shaky ground and may be dropped in favour of the unproven Jonny Bairstow.
Clarke is aiming to join Warwick Armstrong (1920-21) and Ricky Ponting (2006-07) as captains who have led Australia to a 5-0 series sweep over England.
Clarke said Australia would take in the same 12 as Perth, meaning all-rounder James Faulkner, who has a broken hand, will likely be 12th man.
England will also wait until just before the toss on Thursday to name its team.
Australia: Michael Clarke (captain), David Warner, Chris Rogers, Shane Watson, Steve Smith, George Bailey, Brad Haddin, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris, Nathan Lyon.
England: Alastair Cook (captain), Michael Carberry, Joe Root, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Tim Bresnan, Stuart Broad, Monty Panesar, James Anderson.