Disaster. Doomed. 5-0 on the cards…
Ah yes, the usual kneejerk response to any England Test result. And it might even be that is what transpires; but it should not be deemed inevitable. A 10 wicket defeat is ultimately something of a hammering, but England did compete for the first three days, and more than that, they were on slightly in the ascendant. Had they managed to get Steve Smith early, and gone on to win the match, as they surely would have done, then doubtless the press would have been full of thoroughly premature articles about the Ashes coming home.
Of course, it goes without saying that winning or losing colours the coverage completely, it couldn’t be anything else, but a five Test series allows for fluctuations after all – one bad Test doesn’t mean things can’t change. England’s weaknesses were on full display in this match, a bowling attack that struggled to take wickets without the new ball, a brittle batting order, and sans Stokes, a tail that rolls over in the face of fast bowling. In contrast, Australia did a good job of covering up their own weaknesses – their less than outstanding tail performed well, the top order batted well in one of the two innings – while making use of their strengths, the fast bowling to some extent, the superior spinner to a greater one. It’s never the worst idea to look at what went right for the winning side just as much as what went wrong for the losing one, and ask whether that’s likely to continue, especially given Australia’s unusually strong record at the Gabba.
Although England’s inability to take a wicket second time round is troubling, it’s also the case that the primary reason for defeat was failing to set any kind of reasonable target. The mentality of a run chase is very different when a side is completely confident of success; it’s certainly not terribly surprising to see a team romping to a small target even if they struggled in the first innings.
The difficulty arises in trying to sift England’s structural problems and those that sit in the “one of those things” category, and a single Test doesn’t always offer insight into which is which, and to what degree. Many of England’s failings in this game aren’t new at all, but the matter of degree might be.
If England were to win this series, so the wisdom went, Cook and Root would have to have successful series given the inexperience of the rest of the top order. True as that might be, that inexperience is a self-inflicted wound given England have messed around with their batting for so long. It is entirely their own fault they’ve arrived in Australia with so many question marks around positions 2, 3 and 5; at least two more Test novices than is normal. Yet as it turned out, those inexperienced ones did reasonably well, albeit without any going on to make a really defining score. That too has been a hallmark of England recently, and the inability to make big hundreds is always going to make it hard for England to put real pressure on Australia. Cook failed twice in this Test, which can happen to any batsman, but in his case the greater concern is how he appears to be batting. He looks adrift technically, much closer to the Bad Cook than the Good Cook of recent years and a live Test series is no time to be trying to put a technique right. England will certainly be hoping that it is just a small adjustment, or that he merely felt out of sorts, but his recent record is one of diminishing returns – a statement that has been dismissed repeatedly, but which even his media supporters are starting to mention, albeit to to deny it. There has never been a better time for him to prove the doubters wrong.
Root on the other hand was dismissed twice in similar fashion, lbw to a ball swinging in to him. This could be a vulnerability, or it could just be getting out to a decent ball on two occasions. He remains England’s best batsman by a distance, just like his Australian counterpart. England need him to show that next time out.
Where England are certainly wasting a batsman is in the number seven position. In both innings Jonny Bairstow found himself with the tail, and on both occasions got out trying to force runs. It’s obviously the case that England miss Ben Stokes, but that doesn’t mean England have gone from the strongest lower middle order to the weakest overnight – England’s number seven will be a highly capable batsman irrespective. Before the Test England swapped Moeen and Bairstow around, saying that the latter would bat better with the tail, to seemingly almost universal approval from the great and the good. Perhaps it is the case that such appreciation ought to be a warning sign, for the arguments in favour seemed weak at the time. Moeen has been quite adept at smashing bowling around the park and farming the strike late on in an innings, in contrast to Bairstow who has been most effective in building longer innings. He’s never shown too much aptitude as a late order hitter, at least. It may be a waste of Moeen’s talents to have him throw the bat given minimal support, but it seems an even greater waste of Bairstow’s. This will surely be corrected next time out, effectively conceding the error.
Whichever way around it might be, runs from the tail are always sought after, but England’s isn’t especially appalling, not with someone as capable at eight as Chris Woakes, nor someone who does score runs (however ungainly they may be) at nine as Stuart Broad. But few would be talking about the tail if the batsmen had done a better job. There is one thing that shouldn’t take up any more time, and that’s Moeen’s “controversial” dismissal in the second innings. The thickness of the damn line is neither here nor there, and no batsman pays any attention to it. What they do know is they have to keep a part of their foot behind it. He didn’t, he was out. Move on.
On the bowling side, first time around at least, Anderson and Broad did reasonably well, maintaining control and taking wickets. In the second, they didn’t even look like taking any. The match position may go some way towards explaining that, but not entirely, and certainly they looked far less effective with the old ball than the new in either innings. But a bowling attack cannot rely on just two bowlers, no matter how good they might be, and England’s support bowling was relatively poor, which creates a vicious circle of making the better bowlers look poor too. Again, it may be wise not to read too much into a single game – Moeen for one frankly described his bowling performance as “rubbish” when he was asked about it, and raising the performance levels is more than possible for any of them.
One thing that shouldn’t be thrown at them is the problem of the similarity in style of England’s seamers, given was always going to be the case anyway. Woakes is a first choice seamer, and only Jake Ball is in there in place of Stokes, who even though might be a very good bowler, is still a right arm, fast medium one, just like the others. The loss of bowling options before the series was a blow, but they were all right arm, fast medium too, even Finn these days.
In contrast, if England’s bowling is not completely hopeless, Australia’s pace attack is not the West Indies circa 1984 either, no matter how much the Australian press want to claim it is so, and nor were they even dramatically faster than their England counterparts in this match. It was Nathan Lyon who really excelled, and who really made the difference, on a surface surprisingly suited to him. Moeen’s disgust at his own performance can unquestionably be seen in the context of how Lyon did.
With the 2nd Test in Adelaide a day/night one, much is being made of the potential for England to gain swing, particularly James Anderson. This may prove a vain hope, for recent matches there in the same conditions have been high scoring and with a flat pitch, but it is also quite probably England’s best chance of winning. At 1-0 down, there’s nothing wrong with targeting this one, and backing themselves to get more out of it than Australia do. The alternative is to assume Australia would beat England in all conditions, which seems unduly defeatist, even for England supporters expecting the worst.
What can be said is that the 2nd Test is pivotal. Lose that one, especially if they lose it badly, and a hammering is well and truly on the cards. But win it, and we have a proper series. England can undoubtedly play better than they did in Brisbane, Australia can undoubtedly play worse. The nagging worry is the obverse is equally true.