Australia and England should both enter this series with optimism. Why? Because the past two Ashes campaigns in Australia have seen both sides plumb such depths that neither can possibly sink so low this time. Here, we reflect on the criminal performances of Australia in 2010-11 and England in 2013-14, and the post-mortems that followed.
Australia entered this series having not lost a home Ashes campaign for 24 years. In the previous series on Australian soil, England had been crushed 5-0 but only three Australians - Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey - remained from that whitewash. Australia had suffered innings defeats on home soil before, but never more than one in any summer; this time, they lost three Tests by an innings. For the first time in a generation, Australia had lost an Ashes series at home.
A 17-man squad for the first Test, in Brisbane, announced for marketing purposes.
The score at stumps on Boxing Day, in the deciding Test: Australia all out 98; England 0 for 157.
Ricky Ponting's series tally: 113 runs at 16.14.
"In a number of ways, our preparation for this series was a shemozzle."
- Ponting in his autobiography, Ponting: At the Close of Play.
While England warmed up with three red-ball tour games, Australia found themselves playing a pointless limited-overs series against Sri Lanka less than three weeks before the opening Test. Poor Sheffield Shield pitches didn't help either, as batsmen struggled for time in the middle and spinners were barely used.
"What it basically did was give an uncertain group of players a reason to be concerned."
- Selector Jamie Cox in Whitewash to Whitewash, by Daniel Brettig
Marketing forces within Cricket Australia wanted to make the squad announcement a big event, but their timing forced the selectors to choose the group earlier than they would have liked. Australia looked even more disorganised when chief selector Andrew Hilditch told reporters the 17-man squad was only for the first Test; England had a 16-man squad for the whole series. Ponting neatly summed up the absurdity in Whitewash to Whitewash: "The Poms would have been laughing their heads off."
"We had any number of meetings during this series where the point was reinforced about Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott being so strong off their pads, but that didn't stop our blokes from bowling the wrong line to them."
- Ponting in his autobiography
In the first Test, at the Gabba, Cook and Trott combined for an unbroken 329-run stand that took England to 1 for 517 in their second innings. Australia escaped with a draw, but the tone for the series was set. Cook went on to collect 766 runs at 127.66, the second highest tally by any England player in a single series, and Trott made 445 at 89.00.
Bollinger was in the squad for the first Test but was left out due to concerns over his lack of fitness. He was sent back to the Sheffield Shield to prove he could get through a match, but after Johnson struggled for impact at the Gabba, the selectors pulled Bollinger out midway through the Shield game. He was rushed to Adelaide for the second Test, played, and took 1 for 130 as his pace dropped by some 20kph over the course of his 29 overs. Ponting later wrote: "I knew he wasn't going to be right and wasn't surprised to see his pace begin to decline as the heat rose during the match."
"Truth is, I'd had a brain explosion, and argued the point for too long. In the heat of the moment, with my team playing badly, me not contributing with the bat, and the Ashes slipping away, I'd lost it."
- Ponting in his autobiography
Australia bounced back in Perth to level the series 1-1 but as England held the urn, an England win in the fourth Test, in Melbourne, would see them retain the Ashes. After Australia were bundled out for 98 on Boxing Day, England piled on 513. Along the way, Kevin Pietersen survived an appeal for caught behind, which the Australians reviewed, and the MCG's big screen showed a Hot Spot on the edge of the bat, but not where the ball had passed. Ponting argued the point with on-field umpire Aleem Dar for eight minutes after the not-out decision was upheld, and was later fined 40% of his match fee.
"It's almost ridiculous when I think about it now - how fired up I was in the week before Boxing Day; how shattered and deflated we all were by January 7."
- Ponting in his autobiography
At the toss of the coin in Melbourne, the series was 1-1. In the next 12 days, England won the remaining two Tests by an innings.
Ponting never captained Australia in Tests again and the Clarke era began. Simon Katich, injured in Adelaide, never played another Test. Nor did Bollinger, or Marcus North, who was dropped after the first two Tests. Within a year, the Argus review had recommended significant changes to the structure of Australian cricket. Notably, Pat Howard was installed as Cricket Australia's general manager of performance, and coach Tim Nielsen departed. Within a year Australia had found a string of fine new debutants: David Warner, Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, James Pattinson and Nathan Lyon. The next home Ashes series? A 5-0 win to Australia.
England entered this series holding the Ashes, having won the past three campaigns - two at home and one away. This was the second leg of the back-to-back Ashes in 2013, two series within six months as the schedule was tweaked to make room for the World Cup the following summer. But if England had peaked in their home summer, perhaps they had spent their best resources by the time the tour of Australia arrived. And perhaps most significantly, in England they had not had to deal with the threat of Johnson. By the end of the Sydney Test, they had suffered their second whitewash in three tours of Australia.
Trott flying home after the first Test in Brisbane, due to a stress-related illness.
Graeme Swann retiring immediately after the urn was lost.
Cook's series tally: 246 runs at 24.60.
The witness statements
"I felt I was being led out to face the firing squad by the time we reached Brisbane. I was a condemned man."
- Trott in his autobiography, Unguarded
Trott had struggled to capitalise on starts during the series in England, and by the time the first Test in Australia arrived, he was facing significant questions over his ability to handle the short ball. His confidence fell away amid all the scrutiny. Panic attacks, insomnia, headaches - he was in no state to be playing elite cricket. After the first Test at the Gabba - during which he was roughed up alarmingly by Johnson - he spoke to the team doctor about his problems and returned home to England. "He was a proud, strong man and all of a sudden he was sitting in the corner of the dressing room crying," Pietersen said in Trott's autobiography. "It was horrible to watch. Horrible."
"My knee was hurting. My pride was dented. Trotty was in shreds. The tail-enders were scared. Cooky was dithering. It was clear that Johnson was already a weapon that we had no answer to."
- Pietersen in KP: The Autobiography
Never one to mince words, Pietersen summed up the mood of the England camp rather succinctly. Johnson had not been picked for the series in England, but never was he better or more fearsome than in this return bout. He bowled fast, short, and the threat of physical danger loomed constantly in the England camp. He was used in short spells, which meant he was never tired. "Part of Johnson's deal this time was that he was in our heads even when he wasn't bowling," Pietersen wrote. "You very seldom hear people in your own team saying that they are physically scared, but our tail-end batsmen were scared."
"It made us a laughing stock. I cannot understand why he couldn't stick it out until the end of the trip. It left a bad taste."
- Graham Gooch, the England batting coach, in the Daily Telegraph several months after the series
Gooch was speaking of Graeme Swann and his decision - a "criminal" one, Gooch argued - to retire midway through the series. After Australia swept the first three Tests, Swann announced his immediate retirement and left the rest of the squad to play the remaining two Tests with the series already lost. Swann defended his call by arguing that his elbow injury had become so severe he could no longer bowl - he had taken seven wickets at 80.00 in the first three Tests - but there was no doubt that some observers viewed his move as akin to desertion.
"In the vernacular of cricket, England today 'chased' 448. But it was a 'chase' like one of those undertaken by Buster Keaton or the Keystone Cops - the visitors even did their own stunts, with Michael Carberry's bat at one stage folding up at the splice like a comic prop."
- Gideon Haigh in Ashes to Ashes
The series ended with England losing inside three days at the SCG, where Joe Root was dropped and Gary Ballance, Scott Borthwick and Boyd Rankin made their debuts. The end, it seemed, could not come quickly enough for either side.
"I've been given the vote of confidence [by] the board but in football terms that usually means in two weeks you're on your bike."
- Cook at the end of the series
Cook had led England to a 0-5 Ashes debacle and contributed little with the bat himself, but nevertheless he held on to the captaincy.
Cook was retained as captain but less than a month after the series ended, Andy Flower stepped down as coach. Pietersen, who battled a knee problem during the series, never played Test cricket again. Nor did Swann or his mid-series replacement Monty Panesar. Nor did opener Carberry, or fast bowler Chris Tremlett. Allrounder Tim Bresnan has not played Test cricket since that tour. Trott did return, in the West Indies in 2015, but it was a short-lived comeback. At the next Ashes in England, Cook's men regained the Ashes with a 3-2 victory. And England's Player of the Series in that 2015 triumph? Root, who had been dropped for the final Test in Sydney in 2013-14.