By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - An Ashes series that promised so much has all but fizzled with Australia taking an unassailable 3-0 lead, but Melbourne's Boxing Day test offers some intrigue as to whether England will continue to self-destruct or salvage some pride from a turbulent campaign.
Arriving as comfortable winners of the northern Ashes series earlier this year, Alastair Cook's team has not had its problems to seek Down Under with spiritless efforts in the field and tumult off it.
Graeme Swann's retirement this week, cast as selfless by the spinner but slammed as gutless by critical British media, has only added to the air of a team in disarray.
The Coliseum-like Melbourne Cricket Ground might be the world's loneliest place for a team attempting to regroup after passing a sombre Christmas.
Dead rubber notwithstanding, a festive crowd of more than 80,000 are expected to flock to the ground for Thursday's opening day of the fourth test.
England belted Australia in their last MCG meeting to retain the Ashes in 2010-11, but the hosts have humiliated India and Sri Lanka in the two tests at the ground since.
Sri Lanka's innings and 201-run defeat last year included seamer Mitchell Johnson taking six wickets, while breaking the forefinger of master batsman Kumar Sangakkara and the thumb of wicketkeeper Prasanna Jayawardene in a man-of-the-match performance.
"We're playing good cricket at the moment," Australia's in-form opening batsman David Warner told reporters at the MCG on Tuesday. "We need to really drive it into England.
"We are here to play our brand of cricket and that's why we're up 3-0 at the moment."
The pint-sized Warner's turnaround has been symbolic of Australia's revival from their own forgettable campaign in England, which started with a coach's sacking and ended in an ignominious 3-0 series defeat.
Exiled for two tests of the northern series after punching England batsman Joe Root at a bar in the leadup, the pugnacious 27-year-old has struck two centuries and an unbeaten 83 Down Under to add steel to a previously brittle batting order.
Days after Warner controversially described Jonathan Trott's cheap dismissals in the series-opener in Brisbane as "pretty poor and pretty weak", the out-of-sorts England number three left the tour to deal with a stress-related illness.
Warner can claim no small credit for the retirement of Swann, having shown his team mates the way by blasting the spinner's second ball of the series over his head for four, a portent of what lay ahead for the 34-year-old.
After announcing his retirement, Swann further destabilised the England camp by remarking that some current players were "up their own backsides", a comment interpreted by British media as a parting shot at some of his team mates.
Swann later clarified that he was referring to non-England players in his column in Britain's The Sun newspaper.
Swann's retirement robs England of a seasoned campaigner, a sharp fielder, solid tactician and perhaps more critically, a rare voice of levity in an often tense dressing room.
Stepping into the breach is Monty Panesar, whose return to the test team in Adelaide yielded match figures of 2-198 and two fluffed catching chances that ultimately cost over 100 runs.
The Luton-born left-armer becomes his team's top spinner again, five years after relinquishing that title to Swann.
Many of England's other selections remain a lottery. Few have performed consistently.
Team director Andy Flower, who may be another casualty of this tour, said all positions were up for review.
Wicketkeeper Matt Prior, who has had a dreadful series behind the stamps and at the crease, is on the most shaky ground and may be dropped in favour of the unproven Jonny Bairstow.
Neither of England's third-choice seamers in Tim Bresnan and Chris Tremlett have asserted themselves, potentially opening up the door for a recall for Steven Finn or uncapped Northern Irishman Boyd Rankin.
Front-line paceman Stuart Broad may be rested after suffering a foot injury when he was struck by a venomous delivery from Johnson in the third test defeat in Perth.
Australia's injury-prone seamer Ryan Harris has been managing a knee complaint, but appeared to train without discomfort on Tuesday, boosting the hosts' hopes of bringing the same triumphant team into a fourth successive test.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)