‘The ball of the 21st Century,’ said Shane Warne. A 90mph delivery from Mitchell Starc that was going down the leg side. As James Vince shaped to hit it through midwicket, it spat off a crack and flattened his off-stump. It was as impossible to hit as it would be to repeat. As impossible to play as it is now for England to win the Ashes. Where did it go wrong? England’s coach Trevor Bayliss said he “didn’t have the answers.”
England have been competitive, but only in flashes. A ten-wicket loss first up at the Gabba didn’t reflect the fine balance of the first three days. England had Australia 76-4 after posting 302, their sights on a lead before Steve Smith produced 141 not out to haul his side towards victory. His efforts have been one of the defining differences between the sides – 426 runs propelling him to second behind Don Bradman in the ICC’s all-time batting rankings. His scores have ground the English attack flatter than the Perth wicket.
There was hope that the series could be levelled in Adelaide, hope that the pink ball and a greener wicket would prove productive for the English attack. And it did, eventually, as Jimmy Anderson’s first five-wicket haul in Australia left England needing 354 for victory.
It would have been a record chase, but with Joe Root 66 not out at the end of day four and England needing a further 177 runs to win, an impossibility felt tantalisingly achievable. England would disappoint, adding just 57 runs on day five, Starc blasting his way to a five-wicket haul.
Pace has been waved as the difference between the attacks, with Australia’s quicks giving the English top-order just that little less time, and eviscerating the tail. But Nathan Lyon has also found success through control and aggression. His performances have meant no Aussie bowler releases the pressure, whilst England’s attack seems full of leaky valves.
Stuart Broad recorded the worst figures of his test career at Perth, conceding 142 runs as he went wicketless. His last five-wicket haul was January 2016 at the Wanderers against South Africa. Though he bowled well at the Gabba, he is far short of his best. Chris Woakes has lacked penetration, apart from a spell in helpful conditions at Adelaide. Moeen Ali has paled in comparison to Lyon, hampered in part by a nagging cut to his spinning finger. And whilst Craig Overton has shown potential, he cannot be expected to bowl England to victory.
In terms of batting, Alistair Cook has been the biggest letdown. England would relish a hundred from him as much as they would from Joe Root this tour. The young captain was described as a ‘little boy’ by Ricky Ponting, and though the Ashes are gone, a hundred for him could reignite a team suffering from a Stokes shaped hole.
On the positive side, Mark Stoneman and Dawid Malan have shown they have the character to succeed at test level. And Johnny Bairstow’s hundred at Perth, his first in an Ashes contest, underscored his transformation to one of the best wicket-keeper batsmen on the test circuit.
England are short of a complete performance. When they slip behind, they seem to stay behind. Overton’s cracked rib keeps him out of the side for Boxing Day, Tom Curran or Mark Wood the closest to replace him. England will have thought about Crane, but faith will most likely be kept in Ali. With Starc missing due to a heel injury, there is a chance England could sneak back some dignity at the MCG. A whitewash is only ever certain in retrospect, they hope.
Photograph: Mertie via Flickr