Are a semi-engaged England merely suffering from a dead-rubber hangover? Is Australia’s dominance a freakish reflection of their nothing-to-lose sense liberation? Or is this match revealing the true dynamic between the sides? It’s an amalgam of all three factors – but mainly the third.
England are taking this match seriously. And look at the score. At this rate, the presentation ceremony might be a bit embarrassing.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, we often squeaked a consolatory test win once the series was decided – but usually by a tight margin after a lively scrap. We never threatened to make Australia follow on, or reduced them to a first-innings 107-8.
I’ve argued here before that these Ashes were won by England not by an overwhelming and complete team performance but because of (a) Joe Root; (b) excellent bowling by Stuart Broad and good bowling by the other seamers; and (c) disastrous Australian batting.
The first two days of play in this match have only underlined the truth of that narrative – to which you can add England’s vulnerability on unhelpful pitches.
Today, England’s batting stripped off the veneer to reveal gaping cracks in their edifice. Any way you argue it, they do not have a robust or resilient line-up.
Adam Lyth’s test career may already be over. Jos Buttler is in jeopardy. Ian Bell is giving the impression Edgbaston was a false dawn.
Alastair Cook was undone by a peach, but overall he’s made a lightweight batting contribution to this – 245 runs at 30.6 – and has only one innings left to score his first home Ashes century in thirty attempts, encompassing fifteen matches and six years.
On Twitter, Ian Sweet pointed out that apart from Joe Root’s centuries, English batsmen have only scored one hundred in the last eleven Ashes tests.
More to the point, today, was England’s general haplessness – a slew of thoughtless strokes and kamikaze attitudes – which is hard to explain away by the dead-rubber context, especially as the pitch is a feather-bed. As Jonathan Agnew said on TMS:
When the going gets tough, they run for the hills.
For Australia, this is a galling case of what-might-have-been. What if Siddle had played earlier in the series? What if they’d bowled as consistently throughout? And what if they’d batted with such patience and resolve at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge?
The simple answer, overall, is that this series has been contested by two mediocre and brittle sides, neither of which has the means to fight back when under the cosh. It may also be the easiest way to explain the wild oscillations of fortune, and why no match has yet been close.
Here’s another talking point I wanted to run by you. How do we define and recognise good captaincy?
Yesterday a BBC OBO commenter suggested that Cook should be Man of the Series, for his “superb captaincy”, which seemed a little over the top. Cook has captained competently in this series, but most captains do when their bowlers are so dominant. That is not to his discredit.
Australia’s innings in this match provided the kind of situation which makes for a true test of captaincy: the breaking of partnerships, and the retention of control, in the face of assured batting on a flat pitch, and without a quality spinner or lightning paceman at your disposal. Cook will surely be posed this challenge more than once in the UAE.
Today and yesterday, Cook kept his head above water and did pretty much everything most captains would. No skipper has a magic wand. The very best sometimes deploy a tactical masterstroke but more often use force of personality to boost a fielding side’s energy, or wield charisma and psychology to elicit something special from a bowler. That is the level of captaincy to which Cook must now aspire.
Hyperbole easily creeps in when it comes to skippership. When Nathan Lyon castled Alastair Cook this afternoon, the BBC OBO correspondent praised Michael Clarke’s “inspired captaincy”. Is it really inspired to give the spinner a try just before tea when the seamers have failed to break a partnership? Or just basic cricket?
Today’s champagne moment
Ed Smith, speaking on Radio Five Live Breakfast (slightly paraphrased).
“It’s unprecedented for England to go into the Oval test with the Ashes already won”.
In fact, it’s not happened since as long ago as 2013.