Eng v Aus, 2nd Investec Test, Lord's, 4th day July 21, 2013

Payback not so much fun after all

The balance between England and Australia changed at Lord's, when victory became a formality - the pursuit of a whitewash might be the only thing that stops the series descending into anti-climax

Sport is a battle not just for supremacy but also for primacy. Who had the greatest influence on the result? Did Team A win the game or did Team B lose it? Every wicket, boundary, goal or try begets analysis: how much was down to good play and how much to bad? In tennis terms, what was the balance between winners and unforced errors.

In 2010-11, when England marmalised Australia, it felt as if it was more about their excellence than their opponent's limitations. That balance changed at Lord's over the last four days. This has been a landmark match in an era of Ashes cricket, the time when what should be one of the most precious things in cricket - an Ashes victory - became almost a formality. In the age of 140 characters, the last day is easily summarised: England bowled dry and Australia's batting was wet.

Our reference points have travelled 20 years inside a week. Last Sunday was all about 2005; now it's 1985, when England battered a feeble Australia 3-1. It seems history will record this series in a similar way, as an uneven contest between a good side and a poor one. There is one difference: this time England might be disappointed with a 3-1 victory. Yet it's hard to know quite what it all means. They have had tougher Tests against Bangladesh.

For many there is understandable schadenfreude and an unapologetic sense of payback. For those who grew up secretly idolising the Baggy Green and asking themselves in any given situation, "What would Steve Waugh do?" there is significant sadness to see an Australian side so pathetic. You really wouldn't wish this on your worst enemy.

When people are using cliches like "You can only beat what's in front of you" or "Cricket needs a strong Australia" - never mind wheeling out the old jokes about whether they deserve a five-Test series and whether runs and wickets against Australia should officially count - you know there is a problem. The cricket world is off its axis.

To misquote Martin Johnson, there is only one problem with this Australian team: they can't bat. The trouble is that their single problem is an absolute stonker. There was much criticism of Australia's batting before this series, yet they haven't even lived down to expectations: they are much worse than we thought.

Their performance in the second innings was that of men whose basic faculties had gone. Shane Watson could have had a premonition, a DeLorean, the ability to freeze time and unlimited reviews and he still wouldn't have been able to stop his dismissal; Chris Rogers and Brad Haddin were out offering no stroke; and Steven Smith, like Phil Hughes in the first innings, didn't even know he'd hit the ball. At this rate, they might become the first team to employ a specialist DRS coach.

The top order wagged for much of the afternoon session, but then came the increasingly familiar collapse: 5 for 28 to go with 10 for 86 in the first innings and 5 for 9 at Trent Bridge. During Ashes series in the 1990s it was often said that England were "five out, all out". At the moment Australia are almost nought out, seven down before their lower-order show them how to bat with pride and purpose. The top order needs to go into batting rehab.

What Australia would give for the following top six: Greg Blewett, Matthew Hayden, Damien Martyn, Michael Bevan, Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting. That was the A team line-up in the Benson & Hedges Series final of 1994-95. Throughout Australia's years of world domination, their main fear was how they would replace Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. Nobody worried about the batsmen. Whatever else, Australia would always produce batsmen.

Australia's inadequacies are not England's concern - you can only beat what's in front of you - and their celebratory fizz will taste just fine. Yet even they must be a touch unnerved by how easy this has been. They have played a good Test match, no more, and beaten Australia by 347 runs. England won a single live Ashes Test between 1987 and 2005; over the last four days, this team have done the same without getting out of second gear. It all felt a little low-key, a triumph without recourse to exclamation marks. Yes, England have (all but) won the Ashes.

Those exclamation marks might be needed later in the summer. England achieved full mental and physical disintegration in this match. The precedent of India 2011 - a series that started tightly and ended as an inevitable procession once the visiting team were broken - suggests a whitewash is a genuine possibility. By the time of the fourth Test at Durham, Howay Five-0 might be on everyone's lips.

In his new book, Matt Prior says that the idea of England leaving a legacy has become the most important thing in his career. This team have already done that by winning in Australia and India and not to becoming the No. 1 side in the world. Now they have the chance to do something that no England team has ever achieved: a 5-0 Ashes whitewash. That pursuit might be the only thing that stops this series descending into anti-climax. The only way for England to save this series is to make it even more one-sided.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on July 22, 2013, 20:46 GMT

    @ffl: I've been thinking about your comments about Jimmy. There is no denying that he is world class. This series so far he 13 @ 18.5. Bresnan has good figures too, Broad and Finn far less so, so far. However Harris 7 @ 14.7, Siddle 11 @ 25, Starc 5 @ 27 make decent reading too. The more significant difference is in the spin attack. Root's and Smith's bonus success perhaps cancel each other out, but Swann is the real difference between the two teams for me bowling wise.

  • richard on July 22, 2013, 20:11 GMT

    Some of the comments I've read about England thumping Australia, these are not strictly true. Australia have played poorly bating wise, so Has England. People can say England have been propped up by Bell and one good innings by Root, this is very true. But also the same can be said about 1 good innings from St Agar and one by Haddin, plus a hand full of tail order knocks. Both sides are better then this, and hopefully both teams top orders will fire, then this truly would become a great contest again. But even then I'd say that England would edge it. But for now, England are the better team. Not only from experience, but also confidence. They have taken their chances when presented, and because of this they have deserved to win both opening tests. Great to see Siddle leading from the front and Jimmy showing how far he has come, he is very fast becoming a great. Aussies, drop Hughes now while you still can. Great player, zero confidence.

  • Dummy4 on July 22, 2013, 18:41 GMT

    @ffl: you are correct. My warning is not so much based upon what I consider the comparative differences between the two teams, and more about vagaries of this great game. Enjoy the moment, but don't celebrate too much or write a team off until the series is over. I think about how the Australians in these comments celebrated their draws against SA only to lose the series in December, or how SA's perfect game against England at the Oval doesn't truly reflect the difference between those two great teams. That all of England's batting hasn't fired yet is true, and I too look forward to a few great innings. Perhaps that sentiment can also be applied to the Aussie quicks or Mr Clarke.

  • j on July 22, 2013, 18:06 GMT

    @ Roy Jones: By celebrating England's absolute smashing of Australia at Lords doesn't mean one doubts how a fresh match and after a rest of 10 days would change any team in any series. What's unsurprising is the failure of the predictions by some before the series about the supposed 'strengths' of this Australian team. This has happened before every Ashes in recent memory. James Anderson, for example, has proved both faster as well as obviously far more skillful than any of the Australian seamers. Swann obviously can't be matched by Australia either, but aside from Root and Bell England's batting hasn't even fired yet but will surely soon enough. That will be a right ol' thumping of a match when they do.

  • steve on July 22, 2013, 17:59 GMT

    Broken record Sid - Aus have had SA players and SA coaches, all national teams have pulled resources from other countries - get over it - catch up with the real world where players ply their trade worldwide.

    BTW - MATCH top scorers - a Yorkshire man, 2nd top scorer from Warwickshire, top bowlers for England - a Lancastrian, a guy from Northants, a Yorkshireman and one from Notts

    It's a real shame for the Aus bowlers having to carry the team in both bowling AND batting, perhaps the openers would work harder if they were made to put in the hard yards bowling England out.

  • Bob on July 22, 2013, 17:40 GMT

    There's been an awful lot written about the Australians troubles thus far, but let us not forget they came within a whisker of winning at Trent Bridge and at Lord's only three of England's batsmen actually stepped up. The gap between the sides isn't as large as some are trying to make out. Without three exceptional innings from Ian Bell then the score would be 1-1 or even 2-0 to the Australians at present. The main worry about the Australians is their fielding at present.

  • Dummy4 on July 22, 2013, 17:16 GMT

    Before everyone gets too cockahoop, we're only 2 matches into the series. Remember 1981 and how fortunes changed? That said I agree the Australian batting does seem fundamentally weak. Even against SA where they batted brilliantly in two tests how often were Australia 40-3 before Clarke and Hussey plus A.N. Other dug them out of trouble? No Hussey, but Clarke's still there and he just needs A.N. Other to have his day, backed up by their impressive bowlers and they could be back in the series! I'm afraid too that the Agar experiment ultimately was a failure, despite his fairy tale batting.

  • din on July 22, 2013, 16:36 GMT

    Lets focus on the ashes and forget about the other teams who are not playing (e.g. SA or India). Bottomline is that the first test was close but the second test was very one sided. Australia's problem is their batting, if a test opener can miss a spinner's full toss and then shoulder arms to be bowled, thats basically sums it for australia's batting. The selectors need to make changes with the top order batting line up, Watson and Rodgers are unreliable at the top. Perhaps a bold move of blooding Australia A openers into the test team may be an option. If the openers can see off the new ball and shield the middle order, I think the middle order can perform better. Watson can drop to no.3 (as he is a useful part time bowler), Warner can come back to no 4 (the position he bat with Australia A), Clarke can play in his favourite no 5, Smith can remain at 6 (as he can be a threat with his part time leggie). Bowlers are great, changes may only be necessary to avoid injuries.

  • sammy on July 22, 2013, 16:31 GMT

    I have suffered on 3 Ashes tours, watching Warne, McGrath, Lee, Steve Waugh, Hayden, Ponting etc grind us into the dust. Now we have the upper hand, but I am sure that the Aussies will improve. It is worth noting that 4 of England's leading all time Century makers are in the current team, even though some of them haven't fired yet ! I wish the current England regime would be really brutal and bring in Simon Kerrigan at Old Trafford, he really is a talent and with him in the team, Swann, Root and Kerrigan could bowl 60 overs in a day ! But it won't happen !

  • Jon on July 22, 2013, 14:00 GMT

    I think this article is absolutely spot on and the media need to be careful not to confuse Ashes 2005 wins for example and wins here. Lets face it we have not played particularly well. We have bowled well enough in patches but the Aussie batsmen are getting themselves out and rarely are we getting them out. I am still not convinced about our seam attack, I can't seem to shake the memory of SA at 639/2 last year. Similarly the fact that Peter Fulton made runs against us says to me that the fault is more of Australia's than our own class. From an outside perspective I can't work out for the love of me what has been going on in their cricket post 2007. Yes there has been the retirements of greats, this is an inevitability of life. But the way they have managed some players is a disgrace. Take Katich, Hodge and Voges. These guys are not young but still have a lot to offer Aus cricket. They have played in all conditions and have succeeded. In contrast how many chances does Hughes need??