KL Rahul says India face a "very, very difficult decision" over who bats at number five in the first Test against South Africa at SuperSport Park.

Rahul, vice-captain in the absence of the injured Rohit Sharma, gave a strong indication that the tourists will persist with playing five bowlers in the Boxing Day Test behind closed doors in Centurion.

He said: "I think more teams have started playing [five bowlers], because, you know, every team wants to pick up 20 wickets, and that's the only way you can win a Test match.

"We've definitely used that tactic, and it's helped us in every Test match that we've played away from India. I think the workload also becomes slightly easier to manage with five bowlers, and when you have that kind of quality, you might as well use it."

Joe Root says the England captaincy is "not a dictatorship" as the tourists prepare to try and keep the Ashes series alive in the Boxing Day Test at the MCG.

Root called on his attack to be "braver" by bowling fuller lengths after Australia went 2-0 up with a resounding 275-run victory at the Adelaide Oval.

England start the third Test in Melbourne knowing they must win to have any chance of regaining the urn and captain Root does not see a problem with himself and the bowlers having a difference of opinion.

"I like to give our bowlers, especially the senior ones, that responsibility," Root said. "They [James Anderson and Stuart Broad] have more than 300 Tests between them and over 1,000 wickets, and they know what they are doing.

"It's working alongside them, it's not a dictatorship. Every now and again, you don't always agree on everything and that's fine.

"Ultimately, it's about coming to a point where you get the results we want. Unfortunately, in the last game, we didn't quite get there."

Root will break former Pakistan batter Mohammad Yousuf's record of 1,788 Test runs in a calendar year if he scores 159 or more in England's last match of 2021.

England must raise their game in the field, having dropped at least five catches in four of their past five Tests. They put seven chances down in Adelaide.

Australia have lost two of the previous three Boxing Day Tests, both of those defeats coming at the hands of India.

 

England set to ring the changes

The tourists are set to wield the axe after two heavy defeats, with Zak Crawley, Jonny Bairstow, Jack Leach and Mark Wood potentially getting the nod.

Rory Burns is reportedly in danger of being dropped and fellow opener Haseeb Hameed is also under pressure, while Chris Woakes looks likely to miss out after he went for 149 runs and took only one wicket in the second Test.

Ollie Pope has also been out of sorts early in the series, failing to reach double figures in his past three innings after starting with 35 at the Gabba.

Crawley has not played for England since a drawn Test against India at Trent Bridge in August.

 

Cummins returns, Labuschagne on top of the world

Pat Cummins returns to skipper Australia after missing the last Test due to coming into close contact with a positive coronavirus case at a restaurant in Adelaide.

Australia now have the number one Test bowler in the world in Cummins and the best batter on the planet, with Marnus Labuschagne taking that mantle from Root.

Labuschagne is the leading run-scorer in the series with 228 at an average of 76 following his maiden Ashes century in the second Test.

Josh Hazlewood is set to miss out again due to a side injury, so Jhye Richardson should get another opportunity after claiming a maiden five-wicket Test haul on his Ashes debut last week.

Former India spinner Harbhajan Singh has announced his retirement from all formats of cricket at the age of 41.

Harbhajan will go down as one of India's greatest spinners, having taken 417 Test wickets in 103 matches.

He sits fourth on the list of his country's leading Test wicket-takers and is India's fifth-highest ODI wicket-taker with 269 tom 236 games.

Harbhajan also played in 28 Twenty20 Internationals, picking up 25 scalps, and also featured for his country in 2016.

The tweaker on Friday revealed that his long, illustrious career has come to an end.

He tweeted: "All good things come to an end and today as I bid adieu to the game that has given me everything in life.

"I would like to thank everyone who made this 23-year-long journey beautiful and memorable. My heartfelt thank you. Grateful."

Harbhajan last played for Kolkata Knight Riders in April.

 

Australia are set to be without Josh Hazlewood for the Boxing Day Test at the MCG after sitting out of training on Friday as he continues to recover from a side strain.

The 30-year-old fast bowler, who has taken 215 wickets in 56 Test matches, missed the second Ashes Test after sustaining the injury during the series opener in Brisbane.

Hazlewood did not partake in Australia's nets session on Friday, instead watching on as Jhye Richardson and Michael Neser jousted for his spot for the third Test.

Australian allrounder Cameron Green said that Hazlewood would likely be ready for the fourth Ashes Test in Sydney starting on January 5.

“He's going really well,” Green told reporters about Hazlewood. “He was doing his run-throughs today and he’s looking really good. I haven't spoken to the guys for this game, but definitely lock him in for Sydney.”

Neser looms as the bowler likely to drop out for returning captain Pat Cummins after taking one wicket in each innings in Adelaide, with Richardson likely to hold his spot after a second-innings five-wicket haul.

"I spoke to him today and he is good to go," Green said about his state teammate Richardson. "He was so pumped after how he went in that second innings, as you would be, and he’s ready to go again."

Joe Root has backed himself to score a maiden Test century in Australia as England search for a response in the Ashes after a dismal start.

England have been comfortably dispatched by Australia in the opening two Tests, succumbing to a 275-run defeat in Adelaide after a nine-wicket beating in Brisbane.

The tourists are without a win in 12 Test matches in Australia – their joint-longest such run (also 12 between January 1937 to February 1951) – and must defeat Justin Langer's side in Melbourne to stop them from retaining the urn.

Root has been in fine form, scoring 175 runs at an average of 43.75, but the England captain has yet to convert to three figures despite registering eight half-centuries in Australia - only Bruce Laird (nine times) has reached fifty more times in Tests Down Under without ever managing to a ton.

Indeed, Root has already surpassed Michael Vaughan (1,481 in 2002) for the most Test runs in a calendar year by an England player and sits fourth on the all-time list with 1,630 runs in 2021.

Root will eye the Boxing Day Test as a chance to further his record haul and the 30-year-old remains confident he can manage a maiden ton on Australian soil sooner rather than later.

"I expect a response from our players and I would like to bring a nice Christmas present home for everyone who stays up," Root told reporters.

"I feel in a really good place with my batting. I feel confident I can, in these next three games, bang out a hundred in these conditions.

"I know that's a brave thing to say but my conversion rate, this year, it's not been an issue at all.

"I feel like I have managed that well and have an understanding of how I want to score my runs. There's clarity there, I just need to keep putting myself in those positions, just have the bit between my teeth, [make it] 'over my dead body'".

 

Australia number three Marnus Labuschagne, who leads the Ashes scoring charts with 228 runs, overtook Root as the ICC's top-ranked men's Test batter and England's skipper admitted he wants his title back.

"I've never been one for that but it would be nice to have it back for Christmas," he responded when asked about being displaced at the top of the rankings.

Root will also be expecting a response from his bowling attack after he provided a scathing summary post-match in the second Test, in which he slammed his bowlers for repeating mistakes from four years ago and needing to be braver with their lengths.

He hopes his outburst, which was followed up by a "brutally honest" Chris Silverwood debrief with the England players, will act as a catalyst for change on Saturday.

"I did [get angry] at the end of the last game because of the situation we're in and the manner in which we lost," he continued.

"I'll always try to look at things with a level, pragmatic approach but I don't think you could after the way we've played those last two games. I expect a response from everyone this week.

"Twice now we've got ourselves into a position, second innings in Brisbane, first innings in Adelaide, with decent partnerships between me and Mala [Dawid Malan], we needed to go on and we didn't.

"Sometimes that can happen, but the first 20 balls, starting your innings, you've got to be disciplined, you've got to know how you're going to get yourself in the game and we can't afford to be losing eight wickets for 70 or 80 runs.

"It is not good enough, it is not the level that an England Test team should be playing at. The guys know that and they're very aware of that. Their work ethic is very good and you'll have seen how guys practiced and how long they bat for in the nets, but sometimes I think we can be smarter about what we are practicing and how we are practicing.

"And understanding that batting, in my opinion, it's about making good decisions for long periods of time."

Barbados and West Indies wicketkeeper-batsman Shane Dowrich has retained an attorney as he seeks redress over the process used by Cricket West Indies to deny him a renewal of his contract.

The matter came to light earlier this week when Barbados Cricket Association President Conde Riley revealed that he had received a letter from the player’s attorney on the Mason and Guest sports talk show.

In May 2021, Cricket West Indies announced the players who had been retained for the next cycle and Dowrich was not among them. Dowrich, 30, last played in a Test for the West Indies from December 2-5, 2020, against New Zealand.

In the early stages of that tour, Dowrich suffered a finger injury but later asked to be released from the tour citing personal reasons. However, according to his lawyer Philip Nichols, after being given leave from the West Indies, CWI then claims that he was not offered a new retainer contract because he had not played the requisite number of games to qualify for the said contract.

This is the bone of contention for the player, who at the time when he left New Zealand, was the first-choice wicketkeeper/batsman for the West Indies.

Dowrich was subsequently replaced by Trinidad and Tobago’s Joshua da Silva, who has, for the most part, acquitted himself well representing the West Indies as its wicketkeeper/batsman.

Following the New Zealand tour, CWI failed to follow up with the player to determine whether he had managed to put his ‘personal issues' behind him and was now ready to return to representing the regional side.

Nichols tells Sportsmax.TV that his client hopes to have the matter resolved amicably as it is not his intention for the matter to end up in court.

Dowrich has played 35 Tests for the West Indies scoring 1507 runs at an average of 29.07. He has scored three hundreds and nine fifties in that time.

 

Australia head coach Justin Langer backed Mitchell Starc to be fit for the Boxing Day Test, though it remains unclear whether Josh Hazlewood will feature.

Langer's side boast a 2-0 series lead after a nine-wicket demolition of Joe Root's tourists in the opening Test in Brisbane, in which Starc bowled opener Rory Burns with the first delivery of the Ashes, and a 275-run victory in Adelaide.

Starc managed match figures of 6-80 at the Adelaide Oval as Australia made it nine wins in day-night Test matches, the only side with a perfect 100 per cent winning record, in the absence of Pat Cummins and Hazlewood, who injured himself at the Gabba.

Cummins is expected to return in Melbourne after coming into close contact with a positive COVID-19 case last Wednesday, but Langer remained unsure on Hazlewood's fitness as he praised the work of left-armer Starc.

On Starc, Langer told reporters: "He should be fine. He's tough. If he's not right, then we'll look at it. But at this stage, there's no indication suggesting he won't be playing the next Test.

"I'd be very surprised if he doesn't get up for Boxing Day. We will wait and see how Hazlewood pulls up.

"I honestly thought Starc was almost the man of the match last game. He became the leader of the group.

"There's been a lot of talk about Mitch Starc for the last few years but he just keeps turning up. He's an unbelievable athlete and he's incredibly fit.

"His resilience to just keep coming up over and over and over again is remarkable really, and his consistency of length and the way he controlled the tempo of the game last game was a great credit to him, particularly with Patty (Cummins) and Hazlewood not playing."

Indeed, Starc has been the pick of fast bowlers in the series thus far, picking up nine wickets at an average of 21.33, with off-spinner Nathan Lyon the only other player to record as many dismissals (nine wickets at an average of 25). 

The hosts initially named an unchanged 15-man squad for the remainder of the Tests in Melbourne, Sydney and Hobart but have added bowler Scott Boland to the group while the medical team continue to assess the fast-bowling group.

Langer has also confirmed Marcus Harris will open in the third Test, despite the left-handed batter managing just 38 runs across four innings, knowing Australia will retain the Ashes if they avoid defeat at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Dawid Malan insisted the time for talking is over and England must now prove themselves in Melbourne after a dismal start to the Ashes.

England have been outclassed in the opening two Tests, suffering a 275-run defeat in Adelaide after a nine-wicket beating in Brisbane.

The tourists are without a win in 12 Tests in Australia – their joint-longest such run Down Under (also 12 between January 1937 to February 1951).

The third Test starts on Boxing Day at the MCG, with bowler Mark Wood revealing England have held "brutally honest" meetings before Saturday after disappointment last week.

Captain Joe Root also provided a scathing post-match summary of his bowlers repeating mistakes from four years ago and needing to be braver with their lengths, and batsman Malan knows it is now time for England to right their wrongs as they look to keep their hopes of regaining the urn alive.

"We've done a lot of talking," Malan told reporters. "When you lose there'll always be reports that people are at each other. There definitely isn't. 

"One of the things we've been doing this series is a lot of chat amongst the players and encouraging players to challenge each other on a lot of things. 

"We've had good discussions with the coaching staff and without the coaching staff. It's vitally important that we as players take responsibility.

"Ultimately we are the ones who walk onto the field. We get all the preparation and all the knowledge we need, it's up to us to put it in place. We haven't done that well enough. 

"When we have those honest chats as players we feel we learn a lot more. Now it's about not talking any more, it's about putting it into play."

 

Malan has been one of England's standout performers so far, scoring 188 runs at an average of 47, with Root (175 at an average of 43.75) in close company.

However, England's next-best batter is all-rounder Chris Woakes (105), with the trio the only players to accumulate more than 100 runs from the first two Tests.

"Everyone is up for the challenge, everyone is really keen to face up to Australia," Malan added.

"We do it in white-ball cricket, we take them on, so hopefully we can get that mindset and not go into our shells and just try to survive, take the game to them.

"We are almost learning in Test matches because we haven't had that preparation. A lot of the guys haven't played in Australia so are trying to find ways of facing bowlers they haven't faced before but also to get used to bounce here. 

"I know there's a lead-up to dismissals and how bowlers set you up, but a lot of our dismissals were probably soft in the sense that we could have left them. You still have to score, but it's about making the right choices under pressure, myself included. 

"If you look at the way they have batted, the ones who have done really well, they've left really well so it's a good learning curve for us. Hopefully it's not too late."

Australia coach Justin Langer has confirmed Marcus Harris will play the Ashes Boxing Day Test at the MCG against England despite his poor run of form.

Harris has only managed 38 runs from four innings during the series and averages 22.19 during a 12-game Test career with only two half-centuries from 23 innings leading to pressure on his spot as David Warner's opening partner.

Australia's 2-0 Ashes lead has helped ease some pressure on Harris but Langer publicly threw his support behind him in a further boost for the embattled Victorian.

"He'll play in the Test, no worries about that," Langer told reporters on Thursday. "This is his home ground. He's played a lot at the MCG.

"He hasn't made the runs he'd like to so far, but he dominates domestic cricket so he knows that he knows how to play.

"He's a fantastic bloke around the squad ... And we know he's a very good player. For him and for us we're hoping he plays well and gets a good partnership with Davey Warner in this Boxing Day Test match."

Australia's opening partnerships in the four innings this Ashes have equated to an average of 17.75, with stands of 10, 16, four and 41.

Langer added: "We're really confident Marcus has got what it takes to be a successful Australian opening batsman and what we see in the nets, what we see in domestic cricket all adds up to what is potentially a very good Test career.

"One of the building blocks of a great team is the opening partnership and top three. We're determined to get that right."

Former Australia left-handed opener Langer endured similar struggles during his playing career but was backed by ex-captain Steve Waugh.

The 51-year-old coach, who worked with Harris during their time in WA, said it was important Harris felt "important to the team" to bring out the best in him.

"That's absolutely one of the most important things in life, knowing people have got your back," Langer said.

"My experience, when Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Mark Taylor or Allan Border said 'you're in the team', you feel like Superman. You feel like you're important to the team and Marcus Harris is important to the team."

Mark Wood expects a response from England after stern words from Chris Silverwood and a discussion among senior players following their poor start in the Ashes.

Joe Root's side have been comfortably outplayed by Australia in the opening two Tests, most recently succumbing to a 275-run defeat in Adelaide after a nine-wicket loss in Brisbane.

Another crushing blow at the Adelaide Oval leaves England needing a minor miracle to overturn a 2-0 series deficit, the tourists now without a win in 12 Tests in Australia – their joint-longest run Down Under (also 12 between January 1937 to February 1951).

The third Test starts in Melbourne on December 25 and Wood hopes an in-depth chat between players, and an honest evaluation from Silverwood, after defeat in the second Test will leave England in better shape.

"We obviously review the game, chat about what we did well, what we didn't do well, but this time it was sterner from Chris Silverwood," Wood said.

"To hear [Chris Silverwood] speak like that – not because he's under pressure or anything – but to hear him speak like that rather than just being his usual coaching self, he was actually annoyed and wanted a change.

"Hopefully it comes at the right time for us to catch a spark.

"Stokesy [Ben Stokes] and Joe Root spoke to the group about… basically a bit of a kick up the bum saying 'this isn't good enough'.

"We've talked in-depth about how things can get better. Not just words or cliched words, we actually set out what we're going to do in Melbourne practice-wise, what we're going to do differently."

 

Wood did not feature in Adelaide despite impressing in the opening Test, with Stuart Broad and James Anderson leading the tourists' bowling attack in the latter pink-ball outing.

Right-arm paceman Wood is expected to return for the next Test to offer Root an alternate option to his attack after the England captain criticised his bowlers' lengths.

Root provided a scathing summary earlier in the week as he claimed his bowlers "needed to be braver" and had repeated mistakes from four years ago, but Wood believes his captain's words did not come across in "the way he totally wanted" to.

Wood added: "I don't think there's any friction between the bowlers and the captain. It's not like that at all."

Nevertheless, it is now or never heading into Saturday and the Durham quick believes England can still change their fortunes around.

"We've got to believe we can turn this round," Wood said. "We haven't shown our best stuff yet. We know that Australia have played really well. If we can match them then we believe we can win Test matches here.

"We've just got to up our game in all three areas. At the minute, Australia have scored 400 twice, we've had batting collapses and we've dropped catches.

"We've got facets of the game that need major work. We've now got a couple of days to stop thinking about cricket, get away in Melbourne and enjoy the lead-up to Christmas."

Australia's Marnus Labuschagne has risen to number one in the ICC Test batting rankings.

Labuschagne made his Test debut for Australia in 2018 against Pakistan in Dubai. However, it was during the 2019 Ashes that the 27-year-old came to prominence.

He became the first player to be a concussion substitute in a Test match when he replaced Steve Smith in the second match at Lord's, after the former Australia captain had been struck on the back of the neck.

His resilient 59 helped Australia secure a draw and he was named in the line-up for the following Test and has not looked back since.

Labuschagne has averaged 62.14 from 20 Tests, and has scored 74, 0 (not out), 103 and 51 in his four innings in the 2021-22 Ashes as Australia cruised into a 2-0 lead.

He has hit six centuries, including one double-hundred against New Zealand in January 2020.

Labuschagne's career-high 912 rating points saw him leapfrog England captain Joe Root, who has had a brilliant 2021 when it comes to run-scoring, even if his side have struggled.

Indeed, Root has now scored 4,859 runs as England Test captain, surpassing the previous record set by Alastair Cook (4,844).

Steve Smith, Kane Williamson and India's new white-ball captain Rohit Sharma complete the top five.

Pakistan captain Babar Azam, meanwhile, has risen to the number one spot for T20I batsmen, though he is tied with England's Dawid Malan.

Mitchell Starc has bowled impressively in the Ashes so far and has moved into the top six for bowlers.

Jofra Archer will miss England's tours of the Caribbean in the first half of next year after undergoing a second operation on his right elbow injury.

The 26-year-old has not played for England since their visit to India in March due to the long-standing issue.

Archer had surgery in May and was subsequently ruled out of the T20 World Cup and ongoing Ashes series, but the Barbados-born bowler revealed earlier this month that he was close to a return.

However, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) announced on Tuesday that Archer went under the knife again 10 days ago, and is facing even more time out of action.

The ECB did not confirm a timeframe for Archer's absence, but he is not expected to return until the 2022 domestic season.

"The procedure addressed the long-standing stress fracture of his right elbow," the statement read. 

"A return to cricket will be determined in time, but Jofra will not be available for any of England's remaining winter series."

After the Ashes concludes in a month's time, England have five T20Is to come against West Indies from January 22 and three Tests against the same opponents in March.

England then face world champions New Zealand in a three-Test series on home soil, beginning on June 2.

No spectators will be allowed in to watch India's tour of South Africa due to a soaring number of coronavirus cases.

Six days before the Test series starts at Supersport Park, Cricket South Africa (CSA) revealed matches will be staged behind closed doors in order to protect the players.

The Proteas and India will play three Tests and as many ODIs without fans in attendance.

A CSA statement said: "Cricket South Africa (CSA) has noted the interests of cricket fans and other stakeholders on the scheduling and the release of the details of ticket sales, in connection with the forthcoming India vs Proteas tour that is scheduled to begin in less than a week.

"Regrettably, CSA wishes to inform the most ardent fans of cricket as well as all sports lovers that owing to the increasing COVID cases around the world, and the fourth wave locally, the two cricketing bodies have taken a joint decision to protect the players and the tour by NOT making tickets available for the India vs Proteas offerings.

"This decision was taken in order to avoid any breaches that could compromise the tour from a COVID-risk perspective and to also maintain a hazard-free bubble environment."

Pholetsi Moseki, the CSA acting chief executive officer, said: "We acknowledge the interest expressed by the fans and other stakeholders on being able to return to stadiums and want to assure all cricket fans that this decision was not taken lightly, but was instead taken in the best interest of the game and in the interest of the health and safety of all patrons.

"Consequently, we urge all sport lovers to exercise absolute care, during these extraordinary times.

"I also wish to take this time to urge all South Africans to continue spreading the positive messages of VACCINATION, VACCINATION AND VACCINATION, because this is the only way that we can truly get our country back into its high economic activity, which will assist government to open up the economy and all its forms of economic activity, including allowing greater numbers of fans back into stadiums."

 

Joe Root does not believe Australia are "that much better" than England despite their dominant start to the Ashes.

England once again paid the price for a poor first-innings batting performance at Adelaide Oval, eventually succumbing to a 275-run defeat following prolonged resistance from Jos Buttler.

Buttler thwarted stand-in captain Steve Smith's side for over four hours as he made 26 off 207 balls before being trudging off after stepping on his stumps when facing Jhye Richardson (5-42), who claimed a maiden five-wicket Test haul.

Chris Woakes also made a battling 44, but England are 2-0 down and winless in 12 Test matches in Australia – their joint-longest run without a victory Down Under.

Captain Root says they have not done themselves justice in two emphatic defeats.

Root told reporters: "With the bat, we have got the ability. I don't think that Australia are that much better in these conditions as the scoreline suggests.

"I'm convinced we've got what we need to win Test matches over here but we're not going to if we keep missing chances and don't give ourselves an opportunity to get into the Test match with the bat.

"We've got to find ways of building those partnerships, getting in, making big contributions.

"That's something we'll have to do very well at Melbourne. I was absolutely gutted to get out last night. I should have been able to turn up today, put the pads on and lead by example, so I'm bitterly disappointed in myself."

Australia have now won all of their nine day-night Test matches, the only side to boast a 100 per cent winning record in such fixtures, while England are winless in their last four pink-ball outings since beating West Indies in 2017.

While Root bemoaned the lengths his bowlers settled on in Adelaide, the skipper reserved special praise for Buttler as he appreciated the tough task that lies ahead.

"Everyone is absolutely devastated for him, having had that mindset and that strength of character in what has been quite a difficult week for him," Root said of Buttler.

"I'm very proud of the way the guys fought today. The attitude and the desire, that's how we need to go about a whole match.

"But we can't just leave it to the last day to try and pull off an enormous feat like we had to do today.

"We've got three massive games now, with the Ashes on the line. If that's not motivation enough, I don’t know what is."

New Zealand will tour Pakistan twice in 2022-23 after the two boards reached an agreement in Dubai last month.

The Black Caps pulled out of a limited-overs series in Pakistan at the last minute due to a government security alert.

Kane Williamson's side will be back in the country to play two Tests and three ODIs from December next year to January 2023.

They will then return for five ODIs and as many Twenty20 Internationals in April 2023 to make up for not facing Pakistan this year.

New Zealand Cricket chief executive David White said: "Our respective chairmen, Ramiz Raja and Martin Snedden, had very fruitful and constructive discussions while in Dubai, further strengthening the bond between the two organisations It’s good to be going back."

Raja the Pakistan Cricket Board chairman, said: "I am pleased with the outcomes of our discussions and negotiations, and thank Martin Snedden and his board for their understanding and support.

"This reflects the strong, cordial and historic relations the two boards have, and reconfirms Pakistan's status as an important member of the cricket fraternity."

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