Before the Ashes began in Brisbane on November 23, with England having won four of the last five series between the sides, there was no great secret to what the tourists had to do to win on Australian soil for only the second time in more than three decades. The key was to escape the imposing environs of the Woolloongabba with at least a draw.
When England, under Andrew Strauss’s leadership, won 3-1 in Australia in 2010-11, the captain led the way with a second innings hundred there as they piled up 517 for 1 after conceding a big lead. The last team to avoid defeat in Brisbane, Graeme Smith’s South Africa two years later, also went on to win the series.
For three days, England were right in the contest. Having shown a fair bit of grit with the bat to get to 302, they then had Australia in real strife at 76 for 4 and then 209 for 7. But Steve Smith isn’t No.1 in the ICC’s Test batting rankings for nothing. His innings for the ages – 141 off 326 balls, spanning more than eight and a half hours – gave Australia a slender lead, and the four-man attack did the rest. What at one stage looked likely to be a nail-biter instead became a ten-wicket romp. It was Australia’s 22nd win in the last 29 Gabba Tests. They haven’t lost there since the terrifying West Indies pace attack turned them over in 1988.
The script wasn’t much different under dramatic sunset skies in Adelaide. England’s bowlers fought back spiritedly, but few teams win Tests after conceding a first innings lead of 215. With Perth to come – England haven’t won there since 1978-79 – the Ashes again looked destined for Australian hands.
England’s seamers, with their experience of wobbling the ball around in home conditions, were expected to thrive under lights with the pink ball in hand. They did in the second dig, skittling Australia for just 138. But by not justifying Joe Root’s decision to bowl first, England left themselves with far too much to do. And after the hope engendered by a sterling show on the fourth day, which they ended at 176 for 4, needing a further 178, England were once against swept away by Australian pace.
Having tweeted of his excitement on the penultimate day, Michael Vaughan, who wrested back the Ashes in 2005 after they’d been in Australian hands for 16 years, settled for a succinct “DOOMED” after Mitchell Starc had burst through Jonny Bairstow’s defence to seal a 120-run triumph in front of a record Adelaide (aggregate) crowd of 199 147.
In fact, it was Vaughan’s tweet after the first innings debacle that England will need to heed as they head across the Nullarbor Plain to Perth. “It took me three days in 2013-14 to suggest that it might be a whitewash,” he said. “I will probably get murdered for saying it, but England have to do something to stop it being 5-0 again.”
Kevin Pietersen, part of England sides that were whitewashed 5-0 in 2006-07 and 2013-14, focused on three Australian selections that had been much mocked in the build-up to the series. He tweeted: “Aussie selectors: Bancroft ✔️ Marsh ✔️ Paine ✔️ #Ashes”
Bancroft, who had scored heavily in Sheffield Shield cricket, was preferred to Matt Renshaw, who hadn’t. There was much sympathy for Renshaw, whose resolute and calm batting had been such a feature of Australia’s day-night Test win over South Africa 12 months ago. But it was the call-ups for Marsh and Paine that really got the teeth gnashing.
Marsh has always an enigma that few can decode. At his best, as at Centurion in February 2014, where his 148 went a long way towards setting up a series win, he can be a delightful batsman to watch. But consistency and Marsh are complete strangers. In 45 Test innings, he has as many ducks (8) as fifties. After the series loss in India last March, he was dropped, and his central contract wasn’t renewed for this season.
Paine was even more of a left-field pick. He had last played for Australia in Bangalore in 2010, and the injuries he picked up after that made him contemplate giving up the game. When he and Marsh got together early on the second day in Adelaide, the game was on an epee edge, with Australia 209 for 5. Paine played, missed and played some more. His chancy 57 provided the impetus, while Marsh offered solidity. Both also used the Decision Review System (DRS) brilliantly to overturn leg-before decisions given to Jimmy Anderson.
After Paine’s exit, Marsh combined with Pat Cummins, perhaps the most accomplished No.9 in cricket history, to add 99. South Africans will recall, likely with a wince, the unflustered manner in which Cummins, then an 18-year-old debutant, set about scoring the winning runs in a thrilling Test at The Wanderers in November 2011. In Adelaide, he didn’t score for 37 balls, but then crafted 44 to add to the 42 he made in Smith’s company in Brisbane.
So far, it’s been Australia’s ability to summon up those game-turning performances that has been the difference between the two sides. That, and the vulnerability of England’s lower order against hostile fast bowling. Before the Chris Woakes-Craig Overton partnership of 66 spared some blushes in Adelaide, England lost 6 for 56 (first innings) and 5 for 40 at the Gabba, leading to old jokes about the tail of a Doberman being rehashed. They were back on the final day, as the last six went for 57.
As Anderson and Woakes showed under lights in the Adelaide twilight, this is far from a vintage Australian batting line-up. But more than anything else, England need to find a way to impose themselves with the bat, especially when Nathan Lyon is bowling. In that regard, they could certainly take a leaf out of the South African manual.
In six home Tests against the Proteas, Lyon has taken just 18 wickets at 46.22. Against England, he has 30 wickets at 26.93 from seven Tests. The recent Barmy Army tweet – “If you could play Test cricket but had to be as ugly as Nathan Lyon in return, what would you choose?” – looks more and more puerile by the minute.
Lyon had match figures of 5 for 145 (60 overs) in Brisbane, and 6 for 105 (49.1 overs) in Adelaide. England’s inability to be proactive against him has allowed Smith to keep him on for long spells, which then allows timely rotation of the three quick bowlers. Blast Lyon out of the attack, as South Africa have done in the past, and you can crank up the workload on pace bowlers who have a history of long-term injuries.
With the Test and series in the balance, England needed a hero. But Root, who top-scored with 67, was one of 11 English batsmen across the two innings who played at least 50 balls without going on to make a significant score. Cameos seldom win you Tests. What England wouldn’t have done for a Pietersen, who won them a Test on a raging turner in Mumbai (2012), but is now exiled to the commentary box, or a Ben Stokes, under investigation for alleged assault, in New Zealand.