Action: fifth Test January 5, 2007

England's troubles turn to farce

History repeats itself, Marx said – the first time as tragedy, the second as farce

History repeats itself, Marx said – the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. And he was amply borne out this morning, as the lower half of England’s batting did their best to re-stage the nightmare they suffered in the first innings. The bigger picture was just as bad. The series began with England's bowlers conjuring up the first hour from hell, and here they were plumbing similar depths with the bat.

First the last batsman standing, Kevin Pietersen, lunged forward without thinking and nicked a ball from Glenn McGrath that was passing harmlessly outside his off stump. Pietersen is a huge talent, but he has shrunk before our eyes in the past couple of weeks. He has been able to stick around but his strike rate, usually so high, has plummeted. It’s almost as if two months in Australia have turned him into a fair-dinkum Englishman.

Then Monty Panesar and Chris Read blocked for 15 minutes. Finally they decided to set off for a run – or rather Read did, while Monty was slow out of the blocks. Andrew Symonds took out the middle stump with a ridiculously good throw. England were now, in effect, 12 for seven. You had to laugh.

When some runs did come, they were off the edge. Read soon flapped at a lifter, just like in the first innings. He’s an outstanding wicketkeeper and although he has played a few hapless strokes, it’s not his fault that he has been asked to bat at number seven in Australia, half-way through a series in which it had already become clear that an extra batsman was sorely needed.

Saj Mahmood, in surely his final appearance at number eight, was bowled off an inside edge. Steve Harmison mustered a little defiance, clouting McGrath back over his head. But it said an awful lot that England had reached the point where eight runs counted as defiance. The bottom five managed 29 runs in the innings, 33 in the match.

There is a terrible collective fragility about England now. They can have two decent days, and one bad one, and the bad one knocks the stuffing out of them, undoing all the good of the previous two. It’s as if each setback has taken them straight back to that awful morning in Adelaide. This game was the fourth in a row in which England have achieved some kind of parity, only to toss it – or have it wrenched – away. And if you think the Test team are in a bad way, bear in mind that over the past four years, the one-day team have been a whole lot worse.

But let’s not dwell on the losers of this grimly one-sided series. Australia have been awesome. The 5-0 scoreline that is half an hour or so away now is a great achievement, the crowning glory of a famous team, and another memorable chapter in the book of myths and legends that is Ashes history.

The Aussies have got into a few scrapes, as Ricky Ponting has said, but the way they have got themselves out of them has been phenomenal. Seven batsmen have made hundreds, and most of them have been either big ones or viciously fast ones. The fielding has crackled with predatory intent. The seam bowling, led from the back by Stuart Clark, has been a model of sustained professionalism. Two all-time greats have been given big emotional send-offs without the razzmatazz detracting at all from the job in hand. They have made the second best team in the world look like no-hopers.

England need to learn as much from the experience as the Australians did from 2005. Whether they will have the nous, the will, the nerve and the focus, remains to be seen.

Tim de Lisle is the editor of Intelligent Life magazine and a former editor of Wisden