The Ashes adjective-swapping programme
One of England’s greatest all-round performances has left Australia needing to win two of the next three games against an England team which has lost only three of its 24 Tests since their Kingston debacle in the Strauss-Flower regime’s inauspicious debut game. The baggy greens (so called not due to their headgear, but because their captain’s face is becoming baggier by the session, and greener with envy every time he sees Graeme Swann bowl) will have to do so with a bowling attack that has thus far been historically inept – averaging 84 runs per wicket in the series, compared with its previous worst figure of 63. On current form, Australia appear to have as much chance of regaining the Ashes as Rolf Harris would have of beating Mozart in a concerto-composing competition.
Few England teams can ever have played a more complete match. It helped that they took as many wickets in the first ten minutes than Australia were able to take in 17 hours of bowling in Brisbane and Adelaide before they finally removed Alastair Cook. I think most England fans would have accepted the offer of Katich and Ponting lasting an average of half a ball each in the first innings (the first instance in Test history of a team’s Nos. 2 and 3 failing to last as many as two balls). As they would have accepted the offer of Cook scoring 450 runs in his first three innings, more than he had in his previous 17 Ashes innings put together.
After that initial Katich-and-Anderson-inspired blast, Strauss’s men were unrelenting with the ball on a mostly placid pitch, close to flawless in the field, and sadistic with the bat against bowlers who, by the end of England’s innings, were leaving the field at the end of their spells not for a rub-down from a masseur, but for a cuddle from their mummies. England were brilliant, ruthless and purposeful; Australia uncertain, undisciplined and brittle. At some point since 2006-07, the two nations have clearly participated in an adjective swapping programme.
Australia may find a barely edible morsel of hope from England’s performances following a similarly majestic thrashing of South Africa in Durban a year ago – they struggled to narrowly avoid defeat in Cape Town before being obliterated in Johannesburg. As a matter of considerable urgency, however, Australia will have to set their top scientists to work in a secret Frankenstein-style laboratory to create at least two artificial fast bowlers capable of taking 15 wickets for not many in not much time, as Steyn and Morkel did at the Wanderers.
One assumes that the scientists responsible for creating Xavier Doherty have been fired. Of the nine spinners Australia have tried since Warne finally hung up his wrist, only Hauritz has played more than four matches. If Doherty becomes the second, the Australian cricketing public will not be scratching their heads so much as chainsawing their scalps off. The Australian seamers have scarcely provided their beleaguered tweaker with the ideal canvas on which to display his skills, but a selection that appeared odd at the time is now looking like the cricketing equivalent of asking a kebab-shop chef who had sliced your doner quite neatly to step up a couple of levels and perform open-heart surgery on you.
This has all provided rather belated vengeance for similarly scorecarded drubbings meted out by the 1993 Australians at Lord’s and, Two tests later, Headingley. England changed six of their team between those two hoofings – will the Australian selectors attempt to match that? They and their team appear to have modelled their strategy and performance on 1993 England, so perhaps it is not out of the question.
England, meanwhile, merely need to avoid one of their occasional meltdowns – three of their four losses under Strauss-Flower have been by an innings, the other, against Pakistan at The Oval, involved losing their last seven wickets for 28 – to be almost certain of their third Ashes win in the last four series, and their fourth in the last 13.
To conclude, some more stats:
• Over the last two years, England have been anything but the world-class batting line-up they have appeared so far in this series. In their three previous major series, only Trott (50) had an average of over 40. The rest of England’s current top seven all averaged between 27 and 38 (with double-centurions Cook and Pietersen both below 30).
• England have posted six century partnerships in the first two Tests. This is more than they posted in any of their eight consecutive losing Ashes series from 1989 to 2002-03. Only once since Don Bradman retired in 1948 have England scored six or more century partnerships in an Ashes series and not won the series (1975). Their record for any Ashes series is nine, in the victorious campaigns of 1970-71, 1985 and 2005.
• England’s five centuries already equals their best in an Ashes series since 1986-87. They have only once lost an Ashes series in which they have scored more than five hundreds (1924-25).
• Shane Watson has reached 30 in all nine innings he has played against England, but has a highest score of 62. Marcus North, by contrast, has reached 30 in only three of his 11 Ashes innings, but has gone on to score two centuries and a 96. If Australia could find a way of surreptitiously swapping North for Watson when the latter reaches 30 – perhaps causing a distraction by making Doug Bollinger sprint naked onto the outfield and effecting the switchover whilst the umpires and England players ran for cover – they would have the new Don Bradman.
• This is the first Ashes series since 1938 that England have scored two double-centuries. Let us all hope and pray that Cook and Pietersen have not unwittingly uncorked another world war, like last time.
• England have not topped 500 in successive Ashes Tests since 1928-29. Stand back for yet another Wall Street Crash in a year or so.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer