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England can have the last laugh if they use anger as a positive

 

By Jonathan Liew

The defining motif of the Brisbane Test came not on the field, but afterwards.

Opener Cameron Bancroft is describing how Jonny Bairstow tried to head-butt him. Alongside him, his captain Steve Smith is beside himself with laughter, revelling in England's very public ridicule.

On the field, England are only 1-0 down. Off it, they are getting trounced.

The big question, ahead of the pivotal second Test at the Adelaide Oval, is whether England can edit a script that is running resoundingly against them, whether they can harness their still-raw emotions, cut through the background noise and produce a performance that can save their Ashes tour.

Privately, England are still seething at the Bairstow controversy, incandescent at how it was disclosed to the Australian media via the stump microphones, irritated beyond measure at Smith's reaction to it.

"If that's not motivation to the players," captain Joe Root explained yesterday, "I don't know what is. To see a reaction like that in a press conference is…" At which point Root tailed off, his vexation clearly just microns below the surface.

The good news is that they are still in a position to channel that chagrin to a positive end. A siege mentality can be a powerful unifying force in sport, and the sensation that everything and everyone is against them - from the Australian team to the media to the Crown Prosecution Service that is still deliberating on Ben Stokes - may well benefit them in the short term.

Go 2-0 down, however, and their anger will no longer be of any use to them. Go 2-0 down and England will be just another ranting rabble, sliding inevitably towards whitewash.

Adelaide can make or break an Ashes tour. It was here in 2006 that England surrendered a seemingly impregnable position to the spin of Shane Warne and their own screaming neuroses. It was here again in 2013 that Mitchell Johnson broke them irrevocably apart.

But it was here in 2010 that Andrew Strauss' side pummelled Australia, paving the way for a famous series victory. The hope - from an English perspective - is that by levelling the series, England can open a few cracks.

Brisbane, where England were well in the game for three days, offered just the merest taste of the lengths Australia are prepared to go to reclaim the urn. It is not just the sledging, or the short-pitched bowling, or the intense and fiercely partisan local media coverage, but some combination of all: a tornado of ill-feeling that can develop a devastating momentum in a short space of time.

Jonathan Trott found that out on the last tour. So did South African captain Faf du Plessis last year, when an innocuous mint in his mouth rumbled into a ball-tampering story. As with the Stokes incident in September, the England management initially seemed startled by the speed with which the Bairstow controversy - "a smokescreen", as Root put it - gathered pace.

"It's part of touring Australia now," Root admitted ruefully. "It's a strategy they use."

There will be no solace out in the middle. Australia have been on their best behaviour this week, perhaps content to watch the England circus from a distance. But batsman Peter Handscomb insisted that they will continue to direct verbals at England, and at Bairstow.

"Yeah, we're going to go about it," he said. "I'm not trying to make him feel good about himself. That's not my job. There is a line. We just have to make sure we don't cross it."

Root's response was sweet. "Their line and our line are slightly different things," he smirked. "Let's leave it at that."

The temptation for England will be to respond in kind. Yet the likes of Bairstow and James Anderson apart, this is not an especially talkative side, particularly with so many inexperienced players in their ranks. Anderson said they would be happy to let their cricket do the talking.

"Our focus is showing what we can do with a bat and ball," he said. "How we perform on a cricket field is what is going to win us this series." In that respect, England's task is simple: to take full advantage of the pink Kookaburra ball and conditions that are likely to favour them. It has been sweltering in Adelaide all week, but a cold front is sweeping in off the Southern Ocean, and the forecast from the weekend onwards is for much cooler temperatures.

The perfect stage, then, for Anderson and Stuart Broad to go to work. England have scant experience with the pink Kookaburra, but South African seamer Vernon Philander claimed that it "did too much" when he played in the day-nighter at Adelaide last year.

Lateral movement, then, is almost a given. And, as England proved in 2015, when the ball is moving sideways, there are few new-ball pairs you would want to face less.

There are frailties to exploit, too, in the Australian top order. David Warner's pink-ball record is poor. Moeen Ali will come on as soon as the spin-phobic Usman Khawaja arrives at the crease. When the lights come on and the ball begins to skid, wickets can fall in clusters. If England can snare Smith early, Australian morale will plummet. "I have full confidence we will bowl them out cheaply on a number of occasions on this tour," Root said.

Of course, England's own batting is under the microscope, despite the encouraging starts made by Mark Stoneman, James Vince and Dawid Malan. Alastair Cook is short of a score, but looked sumptuous in England's only previous day-night Test against the West Indies. Indeed, perhaps it is a happy omen that his two most recent centuries - 243 at Edgbaston and 193 for Essex against Middlesex - both came against the pink ball.

There have been three day-night Tests in Australia. Australia have won them all. Neither of the two Adelaide games has threatened to go into a fifth day. A draw is by far the unlikeliest of the three results, which feeds into the sense that, for England, this is all or nothing.

If they can convert their promise into performance, however, then it is they who may yet end up leaving Adelaide with the last laugh.

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