When it’s all going hideously wrong, the temptation to cling grimly to any floating wreckage nearby is a strong one, and four wickets for England’s bowlers in the evening session has given rise to curious assertions that England are back in the game, a triumph of hope over experience. In reality they are, taking the kindest, most sympathetic view possible, not totally out of it. Since Australia’s lead already far exceeds England’s miserable first innings total, this is taking blind hope to unprecedented levels.
England weren’t in the worst position at the start of play, and a good batting day would have begun to transfer some pressure back onto Australia, with the usual third innings jitters a possibility. Instead, England collapsed hideously to 142-7, and only got even close to saving the follow on thanks to Craig Overton making an unbeaten 41. Irony of ironies – the England tail wagged this time around.
The batting order’s insistence on doing the same things and hoping for a different outcome is magnificently stubborn (perhaps the only way that adjective could be used about them) and once again it was poorly executed shots that did for them rather than brilliant bowling. The pitch didn’t do much, and in the daylight there was little swing. Only Malan could be said to have been got out, and whatever the merits of Australia’s bowling attack, the same level of carelessness that’s been present in England’s batting for a long time was once again to the fore. When they come off, it’s certainly thrilling, but an inability to play the situation is becoming a real hallmark of this team and there’s so little evidence they are learning.
It is perhaps this, more than anything else, that justified the pessimism before the start of play, and highlights the increasing fear that this tour could get truly ugly. Again.
Smith’s decision not to enforce the follow on was perhaps understandable given the time left in the game, but the principle of doing what the opposition would like least must surely apply – England would not have wanted to bat again, under lights, under the pump, and under pressure. In defence of the decision, it’s unlikely to make that much difference to the outcome either way, for by the close of play a lead of 268 with six wickets remaining is the kind of marvellous position teams dream about, but it did at least offer England the chance to give Australia a bloody nose. And yet even with the wickets taken, the same old flaws were there: England still bowled too short, still bowled too wide. At 53-4 it might seem a peculiar criticism, but both Anderson and Broad were consistently shorter in length than their Australian counterparts, and while it hardly went too badly on the field, it doesn’t suggest that the plans are either thought through, or alternatively that the bowlers want to apply them if they are. There is no doubt at all that when Broad, Anderson and Woakes kept the length full, they looked extremely dangerous. They usually do – which is why so much hair is pulled out at their continuing refusal to do it on a consistent basis.
Apparently, tomorrow morning is another “vital” first session. It really isn’t. It would need to go catastrophically wrong for Australia to allow England to have any kind of realistic sniff of a win. It is of course just about possible that England will skittle the hosts and then bat out of their skins to chase down a total almost certain to be in excess of 300, but that’s barely enough to encourage even wildly unreasonable optimism, let alone genuine confidence.
The worst part about England’s predicament is that so much of it this series to date has been self-inflicted. Australia are some way from being a really good side, but they have, to use the appropriate cliche, executed their skills well so far. England haven’t. Assuming they do, and in spades, it means that Australia will be bowled out for around 100 in a magnificent display of attacking bowling, while the English top order compile a couple of centuries to take them home in one of the top 20 run chases of all time in Test cricket.
That’s the miracle scenario. And that says it all.