Ben Gardner runs the rule over the men shoe-horned in with nothing, but also everything, to play for.
It’s become a theme of England’s overseas Ashes hammerings.
Come the end of a drubbing, they scour the deepest recesses of their touring squad, or delve into the pack of Lions inevitably in Australia at the same time, for something, anything really. Something new, something different, something to take some of the focus off whichever sorry captain is being hounded by the vicious Aussie press pack, or the fact their star batsman left the field whistling nonchalantly after playing a horror shot, or why their players spent the night pouring beer over each other rather than reflecting on their failings.
Noises will be made about building for the future, about giving a promising youngster a taste of Ashes cricket to better prepare them for the challenges ahead. In reality, this is cricket selection as ritual sacrifice. No one’s idea of an ideal Test debut should involve an undercooked upstart facing up to a moustachioed malevolent Mitchell Johnson in front of a baying crowd at the cavernous Melbourne Cricket Ground, or a bright-eyed, burgeoning leg-spinner trying to contain David Warner, racing to a rapid hundred, already thinking about his Toyota-sponsored air punch. And yet, again and again, we see an honest trier thrust into the arena, with only the hardiest resurfacing after returning home.
The last two away Ashes series have seen five players make their debuts after the urn has been relinquished. Only one played Test cricket for England again after leaving Australia. Here’s a look at how they fared.
2017/18 Ashes: Australia 4-0 England
There were brief moments of joy and hope for England throughout the first three Tests of the 2017/18 Ashes. Despite a Steve Smith hundred, they kept the lead in the first Test down to just 27, while a James Anderson pink-ball five-for and a defiant Joe Root half-century sparked thoughts of a comeback for the ages at Adelaide. Then Dawid Malan and Jonny Bairstow put on a double century stand for the fifth wicket in the third Test to help England past 400, and they lost by an innings anyway, leaving two dead rubbers to negotiate.
Fourth Test: Match drawn
As if to encapsulate England’s nearly-but-not-quite series, Tom Curran thought he had a memorable maiden Test scalp only for it to be chalked off in cruel fashion. David Warner should have been dismissed for 99, top-edging tamely to mid-on, and the celebrations were full-throated before being cut short after it was revealed the elder Curran had overstepped. The Reverend brought up his hundred the next ball.
Curran did still claim a notable first scalp – Steve Smith for 76 – and England were in the game after dismissing Australia for 327. In the circumstances, it counted as a skittling, even if the game petered out to a draw after an Alastair Cook marathon.
There was courage shown with the bat in his second Test showing at Sydney, where he contributed 62 runs for once out, but England felt he had neither the pace nor the batting prowess to establish himself as a Test cricketer of substance. He has, however, become England’s go-to death option in white-ball cricket since then.
Fifth Test: Australia won by an innings and 123 runs
Mason Crane, a promising leg-spinner who averaged 42.97 in first-class cricket as he stepped on the plane to Australia, was the youngest English Test tweaker since 1928 when he made his debut. He earned praise for 17 overs on day two: “His action is nicely balanced, there is nice momentum and he explodes through the crease,” Shane Warne said. “He’s very aggressive. He is feisty, looks to get into the batsman’s space. He won’t back down from the challenge.”
The Southampton tyro was also denied his maiden Test wicket by a no-ball when Usman Khawaja was trapped in front, only for replays to reveal he had overstepped. Khawaja would still end up as Crane’s first and, so far, last Test wicket. Only one other player in Test history – India’s Nilesh Kulkarni – has conceded more runs on debut while taking one or fewer wickets.
However, while Crane is yet to play for England since, with a series of stress fractures taking their toll – 48 overs on his Test bow can’t have helped – his Bob Willis Trophy exploits, from an admittedly small sample size – 14 wickets at 13.57 – suggest he might yet come again.
2013/14 Ashes: Australia 5-0 England
Amidst a crowded field, this surely stands as England’s most humbling of humblings. You probably don’t need the details revisited, but here we go anyway. Mitchell Johnson was unplayable, Ryan Harris wasn’t far behind, Brad Haddin became Bradman Haddin, George Bailey grinned under the lid and then smashed James Anderson – still worrying about a broken f***en arm – for 28 in an over, Jonathan Trott and then Graeme Swann left early, Joe Root got dropped, Andy Flower quit and Kevin Pietersen got the axe. England discovered Ben Stokes though, so that’s something at least.
Fifth Test: Australia won by 281 runs
Boyd Rankin had switched allegiances from Ireland in the hopes of pursuing his dream of playing Test cricket, and those looked like coming close to fruition as he was picked as one of a cabal of tall, menacing quicks in 2013/14 to try and defend the urn England had retained just months prior.
When his debut did come, Rankin struggled with a shoulder injury. Eight reasonably expensive overs were followed by two aborted attempts at starting a new spell, with the Irishman having to be replaced by Stuart Broad and then Ben Stokes one ball into an over.
To his credit, he returned to bowl in the second innings, and was finally rewarded when Peter Siddle offered a catch to the keeper. While two ODIs in the series that followed the Ashes marked the end of Rankin’s England career, he was welcomed back to the Irish fold and has since added two more Test caps to his record.
Scott Borthwick began the winter playing alongside Brad Haddin in Sydney grade cricket, and ended it taking his wicket in a Test match. His figures of 4-82 were creditable, but, like far too many spinners England have tried and discarded, Borthwick was more of a batsman than a bowler when picked – he scored over 1,000 runs the season before the 2013/14 Ashes, but averaged 38 with the ball – and he is now very much a part-timer.
A prolific start to 2016 almost saw him earn a recall as a batsman to face Pakistan, but, unless the switch back to his boyhood Durham brings about a drastic change in fortunes, one cap might be his lot.
The one member of the quintet to debut in dead rubbers Down Under who extended his England Test career beyond forlorn Ashes contests. Gary Ballance could hardly have come in in more trying circumstances, with England 23-5 and Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle in full flow. He made a 51-ball 18, a hardy knock in the situation, though being trapped lbw by Johnson early in the second innings was a harbinger of struggles against left-arm pace to come.
A century in his second Test, and four in his first nine, suggested England had found a top-order batsman for years to come. But a loss in form and grumblings over his back-foot-dominant technique have consigned him to being merely a county cause celebre in recent years.
That rarest of things: an Ashes dead rubber in a series won by England, the first of its kind since 1987. It felt underwhelming, though Ian Bell’s trio of impeccable hundreds elevated the contest.
Fifth Test: Match drawn
Back before Ben Stokes was a thing, it was Chris Woakes England turned to in an attempt to identify their next great all-rounder. Batting at No.6, he managed a slow 25 in the first innings and a quick 17 in the second, albeit not quick enough to allow England to gun down their 227-run target in fading light.
James Faulkner was his first wicket, though Shane Watson and Steve Smith had taken him for four an over before that. For a while, it looked like Woakes might not be cut out for the top level. After England’s tour of South Africa in 2015/16, he had an average north of 60 from his six Tests. He has since come on to become a key part of England’s Test set-up.
Perhaps the most cautionary of the cautionary tales listed here. Simon Kerrigan was the leading spinner in county cricket heading into his Test debut. After being mauled by Shane Watson for 53 runs in eight overs, he left a shell of his former self. He claimed 57 wickets at 20.89 in 2013 as Lancashire secured promotion, but averaged over 35 in the four seasons that followed, and left the county game altogether at the end of 2018.
After a break, however, he re-signed with Northamptonshire in 2020, playing two late-season Bob Willis Trophy games.
The one Australian on this list, but another who had to make do with his debut being his last Test too. Faulkner arguably had the best individual game of anyone on this list. After striking a brisk 23 from No.8, he earned a promotion to No.3 as Australia chased a second-innings declaration, while with the ball he claimed 4-51, with Player of the Series Ian Bell his first Test wicket, and then 2-47 in England’s chase, leaving him with a Test bowling average of 16.33.
He would go on to form an integral part of the Australia side which won the 2015 World Cup, earning the Player of the Match award in the final for his three wickets, but has since slid from international reckoning.