Australia v England, 3rd Test, Perth, 3rd day December 15, 2013

England return to the bad old days

After years of improvement and investment, an ageing England side produced a medley of the bad old days at the WACA

Like an ageing entertainer on a farewell tour, England produced a medley of the bad old days of English cricket on the third day at the WACA.

They gave us a classic batting collapse, an insipid display of bowling, a couple of dropped catches, a comic missed stumping and that old standard, an injury to a key player, during a performance that underlined the sense that the belief has long since drained from this side.

It seemed that all the years of improvement, the investment into central contracts and academies, the input of high-profile coaches and the attention to detail that saw such initiatives as the production of an 80-page cookbook and the appointment of an army of support staff so vast it now comprises a spot welder and a woman who makes balloon animals, had never happened. It could have been 1994-95.

It is hard to pinpoint England's lowest moment on a day so full of them that you could go pot-holing in the ignominy. Might it have been the sight of England's No 6 flashing at a ball outside the off stump in the manner of a tail-ender? Might it have been the sight of Stuart Broad on crutches? Or might it have been the sight of Matt Prior, for so long a beacon of excellence in this side, flailing around behind the stumps like a drowning man? Or perhaps it was simply the sight of Tim Bresnan taking the new ball. Whatever the plan was when England named three giant fast bowlers in their squad for this series, it surely wasn't Bresnan taking the new ball at the WACA.

But the sight of Graeme Swann and James Anderson carted around Perth by David Warner and co might be considered most dispiriting of all from an England perspective. Both men have long been fine servants of this team and both men are in the top six Test wicket takers in England history. But it is becoming increasingly hard to avoid the conclusion that they are players in decline. Their series averages - seven wickets at 48.85 for Anderson and seven wickets at 74.14 for Swann - are far from the levels required if England were going to win this series.

There is no obvious drop in pace from Anderson. There have been times in this match when he has hit 90mph on the speed gun and his control has remained admirable. He is the only member of the England attack to concede fewer than three runs in a series throughout the series to date.

But whereas in 2010-11 - the series in which he claimed 24 wickets at an average of 26.04 - he was able to generate lateral movement, here he has struggled to find the seam or swing to trouble batsmen on such good pitches. More worryingly, he has failed to gain the movement found by his Australian counterparts.

It may be that England have simply asked too much of Anderson. There was a time when the side were uncomfortable reliant upon him - remember that 14-over spell that sealed the Trent Bridge Test. Certainly the vision of him bowling in Australia's second innings, with the game long gone and the temperature well over 40 degrees, was like using a sports car to carry scaffolding.

It is a similar tale with Swann. On pitches offering him little, he was always likely to struggle for bite. But the fact is, he has been out-bowled by his opposite number, Nathan Lyon and, in conceding nearly four-an-over, has been unable to give his captain the control required to build pressure.

It is not just that he has struggled to gain any turn; that must be expected on these wickets. He has also struggled for the dip that used to make him such a dangerous bowler and he has failed to gain the bounce that has, at times, rendered Lyon the more dangerous operator.

But the bowlers are not the primary reason for England's imminent Ashes defeat. It is not the bowlers who have dropped chances or bowlers that have batted so feebly. It is not the bowlers' fault that they have, in three successive matches, been forced back into the field for the second innings without adequate rest and with the Australian batsmen enjoying an enviable match position. England have hardly given their bowlers a chance.

No, the main reason for England's defeat will have been their batsmen. First innings totals of 136, 172 and 251 are simply inadequate. At times when England should have showed patience and application, they have tried to hit themselves out of trouble like novices.

So it was entirely typical that, of the three remaining top-order batsmen at the start of day three here, two should lose their wickets in the morning session to reckless attacking strokes. Prior and Stokes followed Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen in departing to unnecessary shots that spoke volumes for the pressure built up by Australia's disciplined attack and the desperation of a batting line-up that have lost faith in their ability to grind out totals from tough positions.

The last time - 22 innings and 10 months ago - that England scored 400, against New Zealand at Wellington, England had two centurions: Nick Compton and Jonathan Trott. In the aftermath of the game, there were suggestions that such a pairing in the top three might result in England scoring too slowly. That England might need to score quicker to win games. That England needed to be more positive.

At Leeds, in May, England beat New Zealand by 247 runs only to be bombarded by criticism for their slow rate of scoring. Compton was dropped and Trott was described as one-paced and even selfish by some.

Right now, such a view looks more than a little foolish.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo