England is disintegrating before our eyes. It has three days off before it confronts Mitchell Johnson and the belligerent Australians on a white-hot strip at the WACA Ground in Perth on Friday, and the reality is that there is no coming back for Alastair Cook’s team.
Only once in almost 140 years of Test cricket has any team won a five-Test series from 2-0 down, and that particular Australian team contained a chap called Bradman. It was the summer of 1936-37, and Australia won the last three Test matches, including the fifth before world record crowds at the MCG, to take the series 3-2.
The Don, who was captaining for the first time, averaged 90, peeling off a couple of double hundreds. This was the year that at 0-2 down the Catholics in Bradman’s team were hauled before the Board of Control in Melbourne and vaguely accused of insubordination against the Mason skipper and chided for heavy drinking. ‘Tiger’ O’Reilly would recall years later that upon release from their inquisition, the group adjourned to Young and Jackson’s for another few pots.
But there are no Bradmans in England’s current team, nor any O’Reillys, to be sure. England looks to be a team in decline.
The fall has been remarkably swift. It was only this winter that many cricket-lovers sat up, bleary-eyed, watching Cook’s team beat Australia 3-0 in England, the third consecutive Ashes series win for the old enemy. It is true the margin flattered England but the right team won; most expected England to win this series as well, given the back-to-back nature and the minimal changes to the teams.
But as much as Australia under Darren Lehmann looks more settled, better-organised and sharp, England has underperformed. It ought to have been able to hold on for a draw on the benign, slow turning track at Adelaide, a strip where the Australians eked out 570 in the first innings. But today was no different; a team that needed to bat for time and hope for rain to reprieve them with a draw threw wickets away with extravagant shots into the deep, beginning with Stuart Broad’s cave-in.
Cook spoke later about issues of “shot selection” and, in technical terms, this is the problem. The number of English batsmen caught on the leg-side in the two Tests at Brisbane and Adelaide is now up to 20, half the total dismissals. Australia has set a trap and England has walked into it like drunken lemmings.
England’s thinking will be to remind themselves that a drawn series means that it holds the Ashes, so two wins and a draw would be enough. But this seems aeons away; their primary weapon at home was Graeme Swann, and he is ineffectual on Australian tracks (4/397 so far). It cannot play Johnson’s explosive pace, delivered into their ribcages, and in particular the tail-enders look lost.
Johnson has been the primary difference and his 7/40 in the English first innings on a slow, turning, unhelpful Adelaide Oval deck will go into the annals as one of the great pieces of fast bowling. Consider how hard the bowlers had to work for the rest of the match when making that judgment.
A final word on Australia’s method. It will not necessarily win admirers everywhere for it is overtly aggressive and sometimes has gone over the top. Johnson in particular has had too much to say, although I don’t accept that he ‘barged’ into Ben Stokes on Saturday.
In context, cricket is a gladiatorial game at the elite end; the ball is hard and it hurts. There will always be the odd blow-up and exchange of words in such a contest, as has happened from both sides this summer. But what has transpired in the past two matches is ugly, beyond the pale.
In Australia’s case, it is pre-conceived, aimed at getting under the English skin and Michael Clarke should pull his men back, ever so slightly. The umpires and captains need to keep some semblance of control.
Clarke surely does not want a pyrrhic victory. Just a win would do, with a little dignity.