January 11, 2018

Why this was a vastly disappointing Ashes series

Mostly because it lacked a competent England side

So what if England lost the Ashes. At least there wasn't a whole lot of this. (Unless he has been doing it for fifties as well. Has he? We don't remember.) © Getty Images

FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED FROM THE SYDNEY ASHES TEST

1. Not all Test matches provide five things we can learn. The SCG offered a catalogue of things we could relearn, if we had been fortunate enough to have forgotten them from earlier in the series, but almost nothing new, other than some sage advice on how not to build a podium.

2. This series came down to a few key moments. In particular, the Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth Tests, those five-day-long moments that shaped the destiny of the Ashes. Also, the births of Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood in the early 1990s were key moments in enabling Australia to come to the 2017-18 Ashes with three fast bowlers in their prime, whereas James Anderson and Stuart Broad being born in the early-to-mid 1980s, which had helped England in several recent Ashes series, backfired on them somewhat this time around.

Other key moments were the Faustian pact with the devil himself that transformed Steve Smith's batting in 2013, Ben Stokes staying up past his bedtime on that fateful fisticuffical night in Bristol, and Harold Larwood failing to find the elixir of eternal youth.

If England had won those moments, and thrashed Australia, instead of being thrashed themselves, the whole series could - perhaps would - have been very different indeed.

3. See 1.

4. Some "Five Things We've Learned" pieces work better if they change tack and become "Five Key Stats That Shaped the Series" articles instead.

FIVE KEY (AND ESSENTIALLY INTERLINKED) STATS THAT SHAPED THE 2017-18 ASHES SERIES

1. In the first 30 overs of the five first innings in the series, Jimmy Anderson took one wicket for 92 runs.
Prior to this series, since the start of the 2010 English summer that marked the beginning of his lengthy peak phase as a Test bowler, Anderson's figures for the first 30 overs in the first innings of Tests had been 87 wickets at an average of 21.7.

Anderson's overall average this series was almost the same as he managed in England's victories in 2010-11 and 2015, and better than 2013. However, in the 2010-11 Ashes campaign, he took 7 for 111 in that phase of the five Tests, with three wickets in the win in Adelaide, and two at the MCG. He took 3 for 39 in the first 30 of England's series-opening Trent Bridge win in 2013, and 5 for 23 at Edgbaston in 2015 as they rebounded from their Lord's humiliation.

England's historic conversion rate against Australia has often been poor, because Australia have generally applied the sage tactic of having a really strong bowling attack with no weak links

England have won 20 of the 31 Tests in which Anderson has struck twice or more in the opening 30 overs of the first innings (with four draws and seven defeats, including five wins in six Ashes Tests).

Anderson bowled excellently throughout this series, but he was unable to shape any of the Tests with early strikes - his one first-30-overs first-innings scalp was Peter Handscomb, leg before wicket in the 25th over in Brisbane. (In his last 11 away Tests, his only other scalp in this phase of matches was M Vijay, caught at gully in the fifth over of the Visakhapatnam Test last winter.)

2. In overs 1 to 30 of Australia's eight innings, David Warner scored 333 for 3 off 609 balls.
England kept Warner relatively quiet, especially by the general ear-melting Warnerian standards of batting loudness. More pertinently, however, Warner kept himself quiet.

His overall series strike rate, 52.3, was his second slowest scoring rate in any of his 22 series (he scored at 50.3 in a difficult series in India in 2012-13), and by an enormous margin, his slowest home series - previously it had been his debut series against New Zealand in 2011-12, when he scored at a not-entirely-Boycottian 73.9.

In the first 30 overs of Australia's innings, he had his second slowest series strike rate (54.6), but second highest series average (111.0). These numbers are testament to a number of factors, notably England's disciplined bowling and containing field placing, which restricted his flow of runs but also his likelihood of being dismissed; and the mostly disappointingly squidgy pitches, which had the same effect.

More than these, they reveal an impressively disciplined performance, an almost perfect defensive technique and judgement, and an awareness that his early battles with Anderson (see above) would be one of the decisive factors.

Smith similarly restrained himself, scoring at 48.5 per 100 balls (also his slowest home series), and well below the strike rate he had scored at since his maiden Test hundred in 2013 (58.1). Of the 23 individual 600-run series since the start of the 1993-94 season, Smith's strike rate is the second lowest. Only Rahul Dravid (602 runs, strike rate 45.0, against England in 2002) has scored more slowly.

Between them, against Anderson, Warner and Smith scored 223 for 3 off 95 overs (and the three were after Smith had scored 239 in Perth, with the Ashes basically secured, and Warner 103 in Melbourne and 56 in Sydney). Factoring in Shaun Marsh, Australia's best three batsmen of the series, against England's one significant bowling threat, scored 274 for 3 in 121.4 overs, fighting craft, patience and persistence with craft, patience and persistence, and coming out decisively on top.

3. Australia's top seven converted 20 of their 33 scores of 15 or more into half-centuries (61%); England's top seven managed only to convert only 15 out of 41 (37%). (This excludes unbeaten innings of 15 to 49.)
Much has rightly been made of England's failure to convert fifties into hundreds in recent years, with Alastair Cook and Joe Root especially failing to trouble the honours boards as often as their collections of half-centuries would have expected.

In this series, however, the problem was not so much England's batsmen failing to take advantage of having "done the hard work" in getting to 50, so much as the hard work never ending, because of the Australian bowlers rather irritatingly refusing to be rubbish at any stage of the innings.

As in 2013-14, when Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon provided the persevering excellence to support Mitchell Johnson's devastatingly pacey pyrotechnics, there was no let-up for England. England's historic conversion rate against Australia has often been poor, because Australia have generally applied the sage tactic of having a really strong bowling attack with no weak links. When England have countered with similar, notably in 2005 and 2010-11, Australia's batsmen have also struggled to reach three figures (three out of 12, and three out of 19, in those two series).

Conversion statistics are often bandied around as if a failure to make those extra 50 runs from half-century to century is primarily due to some kind of feckless inattention by batsmen content with one moment of bat-waggling personal glory, or a failure of concentration wrought by an ingrained forgetfulness that prevents players remembering that scoring as many runs as possible is a good idea.

The disparity in the 15-to-50 conversion rate in the series just completed highlights that England's poor 50-to-100 conversion rate (three out of 16) was primarily a symptom. Australia's four-pronged application of unstinting pressure was the cause. England's batsmen were simply more likely to get out at all stages of their innings.

Memo to Alastair: you don't just drop a giant blob of jam on a slice of toast, you spread it around © Getty Images

(I also think we tend to overstate the importance of centuries, and big centuries, at the expense of importantly timed runs, and batting as a team. In the two Tests that England won in their 1970-71 Ashes triumph, for example, England's batsmen made 20 scores between 20 and 59, and only two of 60 or more (Geoff Boycott's 77 and 142 not out in Sydney).)

4. England's change bowlers collectively averaged 71.7, with a strike rate of 130.
You do not need to be a rocket statistician to know that these numbers are, to put it charitably, suboptimal.

It was the second worst series ever by English change bowlers (they averaged 91.3 against Pakistan in 1987), and the eighth worst by any team in a series of four or more matches.

Australia's opening bowlers had a significant advantage over England's (averaging 27.2 to 35.6, 24% lower). Australia's change bowlers who averaged 30.5, 57% lower than England's, were barely even playing the same sport as their opposite numbers.

5. Cook became only the second player ever to average under 50 in a series in which he scored an unbeaten double-century.
Had the ECB's in-house soothsayer predicted at the beginning of November that Cook would make 244 not out in an innings, or average 47 in the series, England would have been delighted. However, had The Incredible Prognosticating Brenda foretold both of these events happening together, one assumes that she would have been politely told to pack her bags and stop spouting garbage.

That said, she did apparently prophesy that England would win back the Ashes in Australia with four right-arm seamers bowling 80-85 miles an hour, and a No. 3 batsman picked despite a moderate record in county cricket batting at No. 4 or 5, so perhaps the time has come for England to refresh this element of their backroom staff.

For the second consecutive series, and third time in total, Cook made a score of over 240 but failed to pass 50 in any other innings (having done so against West Indies last summer, and India in 2011). He is the only player to have made a double-hundred with his only 50-plus score in three different series (counting only series of three or more matches: Kohli, Sehwag, Atapattu, Lara, Langer and Gayle have all done so twice, in Gayle's case with triple-centuries in three-match series).

Cook's 244 not out was the third highest score by a player who has averaged below 50 in a Test series (Faoud Bacchus' 250 against India in 1978-79 leads the way, then Shoaib Malik's 245 against England two years ago).

The 12,000-run stalwart's average of 47.0 in this Ashes was his second best in an Ashes, but in terms of impact this was the least effective of his seven contests with Australia. England needed more from him. Or at least, they needed the same amount, spread out more usefully.

Overall, this was a vastly disappointing Ashes series, from an English and cricketish point-of-view. It lacked four of the key ingredients of a classic Ashes contest - dramatic uncertainty, tonal variety, narrative unpredictability, and a competent England side.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer

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