It’s one thing to lose, it’s entirely another to offer no resistance whatever, on a docile pitch, in good conditions.
This was as bad as anything on the Ashes from Hell tour, because this pitch offered absolutely nothing for the bowlers even on day four. England at the start of play were clearly likely to lose the match, but few would have expected any side – not even Bangladesh – to surrender meekly in 37 overs. This was abject, pathetic and spineless. Sure, collapses happen, but with England they happen a lot, and they happen against Australia all the time – indeed even ignoring the three for not very many at Cardiff, it’s happened in 6 of the last 7 Tests against them.
That England went through the motions with the ball this morning is almost forgivable, given the match position. Australia were so far in front even skittling them wouldn’t have made much difference. But it did betray a side who knew their fate and didn’t rage against it. The declaration when it came didn’t change the reality of what England needed to do, and what England knew they needed to do right from the start of play.
Instead, once again they flopped horribly. Two of the first three wickets at least came from decent balls, though Lyth and Ballance both betrayed flawed techniques in how they got out. What was extraordinary was how the Sky commentary team focused on these two dismissals and actually claimed Cook’s was a good ball at the time (Hussain in contrast did at least call it a “lazy little waft”). It wasn’t, it was a dreadful shot, a short wide one that he went after and edged. Getting out to a bad shot happens, it’s an occupational hazard of batting, but to seek to excuse it by crediting the bowler beggared belief, and merely fuelled the suspicion that Cook cannot be criticised on Sky. Let’s get something clear here, players make mistakes. They are human beings, and flawed intrinsically. Pointing out a bad shot doesn’t lessen the person, it’s called being honest. Stop making excuses.
England had lost their first three wickets for fewer than 52 for the 8th time in their last 12 innings. It’s been repeatedly pointed out that the middle order will not always bail them out, and the horrible muddle England have got into over the last couple of years is still the same, even with different personnel. Of the top four, the only one who is in any kind of form is Cook – and Cook the batsman is doing fine – indeed Cook the captain still didn’t have a bad match in the field, England certainly didn’t flop horribly because of his actions. Once again, the problem is not with what Cook does as a batsman, it is the way it is treated as though he’s Bradman reincarnated whenever he gets a few, while saying his dismissal was down to him being “desperately tired” as Mike Selvey put it – a tiredness that didn’t seem to afflict Rogers or Smith who scored far more runs. And in mentioning Rogers, all cricket fans will have seen his dizzy spell with some concern. Let us hope it was unrelated to the blow on the head he took at the start of day two.
And so once under way, the procession continued. Bell again got out cheaply, and again in unconvincing fashion, managing to edge a ball that didn’t spin to short leg. Stokes had the kind of dismissal that will haunt him for days to come, failing to ground his bat for an easy single. Whether that was a simple matter of brain-fade or evidence of the kind of scrambled minds in the England team probably depends on how one wishes to think of them.
Buttler once again edged behind hanging his bat out to dry, and Moeen did absolutely nothing to prevent the addition of another piece of evidence that he can’t play the short ball very well.
By this point, not only were Australia rampant, but England were skulking around like a little boy who knew he’d been caught stealing. Broad at least decided to go down fighting, throwing the bat. That was another reminder of the dire displays in 2013/14, Broad reacting by trying to hit fours and sixes in a game long since gone.
Root’s dismissal as ninth man out was neither here nor there and entirely irrelevant to anything, while there was something apposite about the way Anderson’s stumps were shattered to end the torture.
The various Mitches had blown England away, and all credit must be given to them. They will only get better having scented blood.
The only way of reacting to this omnishambles is that with the final wicket, Australia had gone into a 1-1 lead in the series. It is scarcely credible that England had managed to fall apart so abjectly on such a placid wicket. Yet they’d managed to, and shown no bottle whatsoever for the fight. It is therefore ironic that the pattern of England wins and losses recently can be seen to be one of them being metaphorically flat track bullies, able to put sides away with aplomb when in front in the game, but collapsing in on themselves when challenged. That is, except on non-metaphorical flat tracks where they aren’t just bullied, they are whipped, chained and thrashed.
The inquest will of course begin now, but there’s not much that isn’t already known and has been known for some time.
Bell is in awful form, and has been struggling for a couple of years. Yet England set the precedent of standing by Cook when he had his drought, and they can rightly point to his form this year as being a justification for that. So they’ve made a rod for their own back where Bell can legitimately say he deserves the same patience. Whether he will get it or not is another matter, as is whether he should. But missing straight balls as he has been isn’t terribly reassuring.
Lyth is perhaps one of two players under most pressure, but dropping him now would betray the same kind of muddled thinking that the ECB under Strauss have absolutely promised is a thing of the past in this brave new world. Having not picked him in the West Indies when they should have, he then scored his maiden century only two Tests ago. Lyth may not ultimately prove to be good enough, but that there is such a chorus for his replacement after two quiet Tests, and only four in total would be a return to the chopping and changing of the nineties. And that worked so very well.
Ballance on the other hand has – at least for the time being – been found out. He is clearly a highly talented player, and also young enough to improve, but his sophomore season is proving to be a nightmare for him. The problem is that his place in the side is the critical number three position, and so the question of moving players around comes up.
Here is the rub though, moving Root up to number three is obviously an option, but Root didn’t perform particularly well as an opener two years ago, and there’s no pressing reason why he should do better now so high up the order. Yes, he’s batting extremely well, but treating the symptom rather than the cause has never been much of a medical solution to anything. Putting Root there would be to risk getting less out of England’s best batsman, not because of a certainty he would do better there, but solely because those above him currently are doing so badly. That isn’t a justication, it’s negative selection.
Nor does it in any way address the problems Lyth and Bell are having, so while rearranging of deckchairs would give the selectors something to do, it doesn’t address the bloody great hole in the hull.
Naturally, as this was discussed, the elephant in the Sky studio hovered. At one point Hussain talked about England needing a “Kevin Pietersen type” player in the top four, without a shred of irony. At another, Ricky Ponting came dangerously close to saying the name of He Who Must Not Be Mentioned, and Gower flapped in utter horror (“don’t say it, don’t say it”). This was extraordinary behaviour, but not necessarily for the reasons that might initially be thought. There’s no reason to assume Pietersen would have made any difference in this Test, and no reason to assume he would be a panacea for England’s batting woes. That’s not the point. The ECB have made their decision and that is that. But. It is not for Sky to endorse that decision by refusing to even acknowledge the point, it is not honest to pretend it isn’t there. An honest response is to point out the obvious that one player England could select is in the cold and then move on to the alternatives. Each and every time this sort of thing happens, the recognition of what has been done is critical to the debate even if that decision is agreed with. Pretending it isn’t there is ludicrous, no matter which side of the debate someone might be.
Once again, the fundamental point is that Sky’s editorial line is not meant to be at the behest of the ECB’s internal policies. It’s a basic journalistic tenet, and one they have failed time and again. It shouldn’t need stating, that’s the point.
More realistically in terms of England’s options, apart from moving those players around, Johnny Bairstow is the likely candidate to come in. Should they do so then that certainly means changing the order as well, with Bell and Root at three and four. A second spinner is also an option, if they also drop Lyth and move Root up to open. That would be a lot of changes.
England were plainly unhappy with the pitch at Lords, which was more than obviously a chairman’s one, intended to last the full five days – so Australia (and England in a funny way) denying them the revenue from day five serves them right. That’s somewhat ironic, because in one sense England were right to be. Australia’s faster bowling attack is always going to be better on a very flat and slow surface where England’s fast medium offering is going to be akin to cannon fodder. Yet this very flat, very slow surface was one on which England were shot out for 415 across two innings. That’s woeful even on a green seamer, which if Cook has his way based on his post match interview is what we will get at Edgbaston. The problem for him is that the Chief Executive of Warwickshire probably thinks otherwise.
Yet Cook was correct that for England to have a chance, their own bowlers need to have a chance in the game. Over the last few years Test pitches in England have followed the same pattern, slow surfaces intended to stretch the game out to the full extent. It is this tendency that Colin Graves was quietly referring to when he raised the idea of four day Tests – another example of treating the symptom incidentally. That this has had the result of spectacularly biting England on the arse is exactly what they deserve, for it has been a long time since England produced the kind of quick pitches that might actually prepare them a little for facing the two Australian fast ‘n nasties, and even allow England to develop one or two of their own.
This match was nothing but total humiliation. It is striking that in the Tests between these two sides, there are very few close ones, one side absolutely batters the other albeit Australia batter England rather more than the other way around. To that extent England will feel that there is no reason they can’t win the next one, and they are of course right. If anything has been demonstrated in previous Ashes series, momentum is a rather overrated thing.
Yet England did have a real chance to put Australia under huge pressure in this match. After Cardiff there were definitely cracks in the side. Not large ones, and as has been seen in this game, not critical ones. But had they produced the kind of English pitch we used to get before they started trying to be clever and extract even more money from the poor spectator, it likely would have worked to England’s advantage. Not so much to guarantee a win of course, but at least to give them a chance. The Test against New Zealand at Lords was of course a fantastic one, yet that was so unusual compared to the ones we’ve seen in recent years that one can’t help but feel it was some kind of happy error. Certainly the two prepared in 2014 were every bit as lifeless as this one, and note that England could not bowl Sri Lanka out in one, and lost badly to India in the other.
Once England had lost the toss here, their chances of winning were very low. The difference is that there was no reason why they should lose the Test. And no reason whatever that they should lose the Test by the margin of 820-10 to 415-20. Or to put it another way, based on this, England would have had to bat a whole additional Test to reach Australia’s match total.
And finally we come to the media in general. At the risk of repeating a common theme on this blog, they went completely overboard once again after the win at Cardiff. It was a terrific win there’s no doubt about that, but the “fickle” people in such places as here and at the Full Toss, repeatedly cautioned that England had a habit of losing their next match badly after a win, and that triumphalism was both premature and more than a bit ridiculous. It didn’t stop them. From writing a homage to Andrew Strauss as the architect of England’s success to saying Ian Bell was back, to long paeans of how the new England under Cook would go on to terrify all and sundry, this thrashing is matters coming home to roost. Again. Doubtless they will now swing the other way, demand wholesale changes and assume England will be blown away in the remainder of the series. And that is indeed a possibility, and unquestionably a fear given this implosion. It’s just not guaranteed.
England may well recover from here, it doesn’t mean they can’t win from here. It does mean there is concern about how they will react to it – that is up to them, to decide whether there really are scars from 2013/14 or not.