This is where Joe Root’s England captaincy will be defined. History will judge his leadership on this third crack at the biggest prize in Test cricket rather than a record which sees him with more wins and, soon, more games in charge than any other captain.
It really is now, in the always harsh environment of Australia — made even more hostile this time because of the lack of travelling support — or never for Root to become an Ashes winning England captain. And to be remembered as much for his achievements in charge as for batting that sees him well on the way to becoming an all-time great.
There will surely not be a fourth chance in two years’ time, even though Root is expected to carry on at the helm, win or lose, after this strange Covid-affected Ashes.
This Ashes series against Australia is where Joe Root’s England captaincy will be defined
It really is now or never for Root to become an Ashes winning England captain
His popularity among the players, the desire of the ECB not to judge their captain and coach too harshly on results during this difficult period and the lack of any viable alternatives all but guarantee that — even though we have already argued in these pages this would be the perfect time for Root to hand over, whether on a high or low note.
There is no doubt he needs to maintain the form that has seen him hit six centuries this year, four of them the ‘daddy’ hundreds that former captain and batting coach Graham Gooch used to crave. At an average of 66, too.
But the captain has never reached three figures in his two chastening tours of Australia. That has to change now if England are to have any chance of upsetting the Ashes odds.
‘I look back at my trips here and I probably put too much pressure on myself,’ Root reflected. ‘This time I want to try to play with the same mindset I’ve had for the rest of this year. I’m really trying to enjoy my batting, trying to keep real clarity in how I want to score my runs and just enjoy what a wonderful series this is set to be.’
There is no doubt Root needs to maintain the sublime personal form that has seen him hit six centuries this year
But the captain has never reached three figures in his two chastening tours of Australia
But Root cannot do it all on his own. Despite the captain being in the form of his life, England have won just four of their last 12 Tests. And new captain Pat Cummins has dismissed him seven times in two previous Ashes.
Step up, then, the other world-class member of England’s batting line-up Ben Stokes, back after time out nursing his battered left index finger and his mental health and with an aura that could see Australia having nightmares about a repeat of Headingley 2019.
How delighted Root is to have his talisman and close friend back, after being forced to go into that captaincy baptism of fire four years ago without him — after the Bristol fracas — against a rough Australia side at their obnoxious pre-Sandpapergate peak.
Australia skipper Pat Cummins (left) has dismissed him seven times in two previous Ashes
‘Ben is vice-captain of this team and a natural leader,’ said Root. ‘He’ll want to lead from the front whether it is with bat or ball and I’m sure Australia will be fearing him slightly. They know what he can do. I think conditions here suit Ben and it’s massive to have him. He left a big hole last time.’
While Stokes is certain to play, England were weighing up their alternatives on Monday night, with conditions and suspicion of the spin resources at their disposal pointing to an all-seam attack — even though the situation was complicated by the injury to Jimmy Anderson.
Sources close to the England camp insisted that Jack Leach still had every chance of playing which, with Chris Woakes the likely replacement for Anderson, might be bad news for Stuart Broad or Mark Wood, the man who should be suited most of all to the Gabba. Ollie Pope, meanwhile, seems to have nudged in front of Jonny Bairstow for the No 6 position.
All Root would say was: ‘I don’t feel comfortable revealing anything at this stage because there are still decisions to be made,’ while brushing aside a question on whether he would buck history and bowl first should he win the toss, with rain around for at least the first three days and a green-looking Gabba pitch.
How delighted Root is to have his talisman and close friend Ben Stokes back alongside him
Root should not have any qualms about doing what Len Hutton and Nasser Hussain did and lived to regret in putting Australia in to bat at Brisbane. Bowling is the strength of both sides and it would be easy to see whoever bats first crashing to something like 80 for six on the first morning.
But what the captain did say is that England are looking closely at how India breached Fortress Gabba just under a year ago to pull off an extraordinary upset with virtually their second team.
‘India came here and performed outstandingly and that was the last Test Australia played,’ said Root. ‘We watched how they went about their cricket and how they were very smart throughout that series. You have to learn from teams who have had recent success here as well as other England teams who have done well.’
No England side have even won a Test in Australia since Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower pulled off that incredible 3-1 victory 10 years ago, but Root’s should be able to triumph at least once in five tries.
Chances are they will lose another series in Australia, but for now they can at least dream about ensuring their captain ends up with a leadership legacy to match his peerless batting.
England are looking closely at how India breached Fortress Gabba just under a year ago