This series continues to defy analysis. A see-saw narrative of fluctuating fortunes is one thing, but the margins of victory are hard to comprehend. You’d associate a 2-1 scoreline, in which each side takes turns to win, with nail-biting finishes. Instead, England and Australia have taken turns to pulverise each other: 169 runs, 405 runs, eight wickets.
What’s going on? Is it a case of high-quality but isolated individual performances setting the agenda in each game? Or is the truth that both sides are poor, and the series has been reduced this to a chaotic duel of fragility and inconsistency?
In some ways these Ashes feel like a spiritual cousin of 2009, only more random, more spectacular, and even less predictable.
In 2009, and Cardiff-heroics aside, England won because our batting only collapsed once into total rubble, in the fourth test at Headingley, while Australia’s did twice – in the first innings at both Lord’s and the Oval (as well as the drawn third test at Edgbaston).
This time, I suspect the destination of the urn will be inextricably linked to Australia’s batting in their first innings at Trent Bridge. Another collapse and the Ashes will be England’s. But if Australia can take early control, the momentum will shift again.
Which is a roundabout way of stating the bleeding obvious. The problem is, this contest is proving so volatile that any critique is reduced to a flurry of ifs, buts, maybes and caveats.
It would be stretching a point to say England are batting well. They’ve only made one century so far – Joe Root’s. Neither Lyth nor Buttler have yet made any impact. Jonny Bairstow didn’t remain at the crease long enough to change the equation. Alastair Cook has looked in good touch, but if he’s serious about reclaiming the urn, Trent Bridge would be an apt occasion for him to end a run of thirteen Ashes tests without a century.
On the other hand, England bat deeper than Australia, who themselves must address the growing crisis in their middle order. They have a gaping chasm between Steve Smith at three and Mitchell Marsh at six. Michael Clarke has four test innings remaining before he retires. Do his eyes and his basic ball-sense still have enough in the tank for him to muster a series-salvaging innings? Higher up the order, David Warner owes his team a big score.
On the bright side for Australia, and crucially, James Anderson will not be at Trent Bridge. I wrote on Thursday night that “if the ‘tightness’ in his side is revealed to be a significant injury, Australia will win the series”. I stand by it. Trevor Bayliss has hinted that Anderson will be replaced by Mark Wood, not Liam Plunkett or Mark Footitt. If so, can he, Stuart Broad, Steve Finn, and Moeen Ali, take twenty wickets between them? Finn may have been man-of-the-match at Edgbaston, and his performance should not be under-estimated, but it was Anderson’s first innings 6-47 which broke Australia’s back and set the tone of the whole match. In the other test England won, at Cardiff, Anderson had a quieter game but still led the first-innings wicket-taking.
Finn and Wood are both best deployed as short-sharp-shock bowlers. But if they both play at Trent Bridge, at least one of them will have their role diluted. Wood might not even be completely roadworthy – he’s recovering from injury and has just had an injection in his left ankle in a bid to be fit for Nottingham. As Nick Hoult points out in the Telegraph, Wood “has never managed to play three consecutive first-class games in his career”.
In the Australian camp, Ryan Harris is being sorely missed. His persistent threat, especially against Cook and Root, would have changed the whole mood. Starc is too erratic to close down an end and maintain pressure, leaving Josh Hazlewood with too much to do.
Finally, in our attempts to make sense of this crazy series, perhaps we’ve missed the most obvious but mundane factor of all. If England proceed to victory, it will mean that since 2002-03 seven of the last eight Ashes will have been won by the home side – England’s 2010-11 triumph being the sole exception. Home advantage has always helped in the Ashes. But has it evolved from mere advantage into – not just a force-field, but an insuperable weapon?