CRICKET: Wreckage of Ashes tour to Australia will allow Joe Root to mould an England team in his image
England's latest tour of Australia has been a distaster on the field only overshadowed in magnitude by shambolic events off it but as the Ashes urn falls into Aussie hands for the first time since 2014, there is at least a crumb of comfort for England skipper Joe Root.
The light at the end of an increasingly-darker tunnel came from someone who knows him well, the former England skipper and fellow Sheffield Collegiate product Michael Vaughan.
Amid a backdrop of Ben Stokes fighting on the streets of Bristol, Jonny Bairstow headbutting an Australian opponent and then Ben Duckett pouring beer over vice-captain Jimmy Anderson, England have slumped to 3-0 down in the series with two left to play.
Questions persist over the future of Alastair Cook, England’s record run scorer who is undoubtedly on the wane, and Stuart Broad, who has taken just the five wickets in three Tests so far at an average approaching 62.
Root’s own displays - certainly compared to the imperious Steve Smith, the Australian captain with whom he is often competing for the No.1 spot in the world - have also fallen below the standard he would have liked, but in reality there is little wonder when he made the journey halfway round the world without his vice-captain, right-hand man and most important player, in Stokes.
Little has gone right since.
“I feel a bit sorry for him when you look at what he has had to deal with off the field for a young, inexperienced captain,” Vaughan wrote in his Daily Telegraph column.
“I’m not sure how I would have handled that after four or five years in the job let alone on my first tour.
“He will also not be under this kind of pressure again unless he comes back to Australia as captain in four years.
“In the second innings in Perth Joe looked a tired, drained captain after two days in the field. He needs to compartmentalise. He has to learn the art of dealing with disciplinary off-field incidents, strategic meetings and tactical stuff, and then, most importantly, clearing his mind and concentrating on batting.
“He has to learn that whenever it is batting time, he forgets all other stuff. It only comes with experience.”
And what an experience this has been. Root’s first two series in the job were relatively straightforward - notwithstanding a record run chase by the West Indians on his home ground, just up the road at Headingley - but his first crack at the Ashes in the top job has been steadily undermined by those around him.
But from here, the only way is up and from the wreckage of a disastrous tour so far, Root has the chance to hollow England out and start again, building up a side in his image and doing things very much his way.
That will mean brave calls, of course - he is very close to Broad, and served as Cook’s vice-captain for some time before his ascension to the throne - but the opportunity is there, and it is a small crumb of comfort for the 26-year-old ahead of the next Test, on Boxing Day in front of 90,000 at the famous MCG.
“This is Joe’s chance to build his own team from the wreckage of an Ashes tour that has gone wrong both on and off the field,” Vaughan added.
“He has the rest of this series before he rejoins the ranks of the one-day side to identify what he wants his Test team to stand for.
“What does he want his England team to look like? What culture does he want and which individuals have a future?
“He has to use this tour to assess himself and those around him but also understand how he has dealt with everything.
“In defeat there is always an opportunity to take the team forward. He has to gather his thoughts about characters in the group. If that means making some tough decisions and getting rid of a few players, well, now is the time to do it.
“England, if they are not careful, could reach a point where all three legends [Cook, Broad and leading wicket-taker Jimmy Anderson] retire at once.
“How do you replace three big players at the same time? It is very difficult so it might be that England have to phase them out by giving other players opportunities.
“You have to carefully manage the senior legends. You cannot let them dictate when they play.
“You have to be smart enough and hard enough to realise they should not automatically be picked because they have 500 or 400 Test wickets or scored 11,000 Test runs.”
Root will have been forgiven for thinking the tide was starting to turn in the first innings at Perth, when Dawid Malan’s century inspired England to 403 in their first innings.
The trouble came when Smith’s double-century helped his side rack up 662-9 in reply - their highest Ashes total on home turf - and in their second dig, England offered just 218 all out to lose by an innings and 41 runs.
It is a remarkable statistic that, in the history of Test cricket, on only six occasions has a side lost by an innings after scoring 400 or more batting first. Three of those are England. In the last 13 months.
Food for thought for the skipper but, he insists, no lack of effort.
“It’s bitterly disappointing,” Root said.
“But they tried absolutely everything. It wasn’t for the lack of effort.
“We went through every plan - different fields, bowling straight, hanging it wide, every now and again a bit of bumper warfare.
“It felt like we didn’t leave anything to chance.”
The frustration is compounded by the fact that England have, at one stage or another, been in every Test match - only for Australia to show their dominance at key stages. At Perth, for example, they were well set at 368-5 when Malan fell for a superb 140. Then, they lost all their five remaining wickets for just 35 runs and put themselves firmly behind the curve.
“I don’t think these three games are a fair reflection of how we’ve played and what we’re capable of,” Root added.
“I think we need to do ourselves and the supporters back home justice.
“Probably the biggest thing that has been to my detriment is trying too hard.
“I’ve been desperate to win this series.”