It never takes long for the wheels to come off. A rattle, a shake, a thud or two, a crack, and before you know it, the whole thing has gone kaput. The maddening thing about the Ben Stokes affair is that he is such a good bloke, albeit one with a weakness for the turps. He is by no means the first sportsman, and will definitely not be the last, to make the most of after-hours camaraderie. If only his mates had dragged him home before Bristol's witching hour. The truth is that everyone misses him, English and Australian alike. His cricketing ability, instincts and flair are up there with Messrs Miller and Botham. The game and its believers are already suffering from his absence.
One could not help but imagine him at the wicket with England well placed in the first innings in Brisbane on 246 for 4; and then again imagine him when all Australia was praying for forgiveness at the reply that read 209 for 7. "Imagine all the people living life in peace"... oh Ben!
Then we had to imagine Jonny Bairstow's greeting of Cameron Bancroft. A nod that went astray? A tribal welcome of historical significance? Or an amber-nectar-driven "salute"! By heaven, Steven Smith got stuck into that opportunity. "It was about putting Jonny off his game. He got caught at third man playing a pretty ordinary shot to be fair. We tried to get into his head, it happened to work." Bingo.
Rattles and shakes indeed. The thuds came when the balls bowled by the Australian pace attack hit the Englishmen's bodies. The crack was the one from Mitchell Starc that hit Joe Root on the helmet. This was much like the ball that Jeff Thomson once bowled to Keith Fletcher, except that Fletcher was wearing a cloth cap with the insignia of St George and the Dragon displayed prominently above its peak. Instinctively out of panic, Fletcher dipped his head and the ball crashed square-on into St George before ricocheting to Ross Edwards at cover-point, who caught the catch. Or so thought Thomson, momentarily forgetting that bat or glove needed to be involved in such a dismissal. One supposes that for Thommo back then, any sort of knockout blow was good enough.
Cricket Australia have just released Forged in Fire, a three-part documentary on the magic of the Ashes, mostly through the voices of those who should know. We were shown the first one the other night, an entertaining piece that concentrates on the series in Australia in 1974-75. There was bit of Fire in Babylon - the sort-of West Indian equivalent - about it, as balls delivered at frightening speeds broke English spirit and bone. Ruthless as the West Indian attack was in the years of plenty, it was Dennis Lillee and Thomson who put them up to it after crushing Clive Lloyd's touring team of 1975-76 pretty much as mercilessly as they had crushed England the year before. Spinners? Pah, thought Lloyd. We shall match fire with fire.
"Look at Smith's innings any which way but think clearly about the destruction it caused. This was an epic. A piece of art for the Ashes' sake. Never mind the idiosyncracies, reflect on the message: we shall not surrender"
And that was a problem encountered by England at the Gabba: the inability to match fire with fire. Another was the inability to match spin with spin. The final one was the inability to match Steven Smith.
The chronological line of Australian batting excellence since Don Bradman reads: Arthur Morris, Neil Harvey, Greg Chappell, Ricky Ponting, and now Smith. It has to include Smith. Record and effect tell us everything. He is no Chappell G, no aesthete, but his play is exquisite in many other ways; ways that drive opposing bowlers to distraction. He fidgets and flaps like no other - a four- piece stanza before each ball faced that concludes with a high wave of the bat and two exaggerated flexes of the knees, before the creep across the crease that takes him to Smith nirvana: a transcendent state of peace and happiness around off stump from where the oracle is worked and the miracles are made.
Where the bloody hell do you bowl to this fellow? Outside off stump perhaps, but not if the Smithmeister is in leaving mode, for he is okay awhile with the status quo. Dead straight is fine, unless his eye is in and the ball has refused to move from its original line - wow, then it gets a leg-side whoopin'. Short is a reasonable plan if well directed (throat), unless it's telegraphed and then he just giggles to himself and watches it float by. Full is very good, unless it's a tad too full and he pumps it down the ground. Root had plenty of plans, some to capture his opposite number's wicket and others to limit his scoring, but Smith's will outlasted Root's wit. Frankly, once the Australian captain was set, it never looked like anything else. He played and missed only twice, or arguably a third time too, though the withdrawal of his bat is a piece of theatre in itself and not always to be trusted for the truth. Look at it the innings any which way but think clearly about the destruction it caused. This was an epic. One for the ages, a piece of art for the Ashes' sake. Never mind the idiosyncracies, reflect on the message: we shall not surrender.
In Forged in Fire part one, the impact of the balls bowled by Lillee and Thomson is astounding. This has generally been the case at most levels of the game in Australia because the pitches make fools of anyone, or anything, mediocre. Bowlers deliver hard into the pitch, or they are not asked to deliver again. At best this jars the batsmen's bottom hand; at worst it bruises, breaks or cuts the body. When the Australian fielders sense this effect, they become like hyenas, sensationalising the glory of both the hunt and the kill. When the ball has zipped around off the seam and in the air, like at Trent Bridge two years ago, England have done this too. Thus, it is payback time.
If Root's team was not aware of the nature of cricket in Australia, or had forgotten, they are now up to speed - so to speak. Stokes was missed in the role of enforcer. Mark Wood too. James Anderson shapes the ball; Stuart Broad works his changes of pace and length, nipping the thing of the seam; Chris Woakes usually swings it out at good, strong pace. But not at the Gabba. Put simply, there was no one to get it up 'em. No one to bowl hard. Liam Plunkett could but was not picked. He plays irregularly enough for Yorkshire as it is. Three gentle warm-ups against Cricket Australia XIs are simply not enough. The only way to prepare for Ashes cricket is to play full-on four-day games against State sides and play them to win. The boards of both countries should commit to better cricket in the build-up to all Ashes matches, allowing the visiting players to properly adjust and the first-class cricketers of their land to mix it with the big boys. It is both inexcusable and self-defeating to deny such fixtures.
It was no great surprise that the Australian pace bowlers got it up England to good effect. The pitch was slow to begin with but as the surface baked in the sun, so it rediscovered some of its usual vigour. Bouncers without compromise were fired at England's tail, who had seen Root hit and doubtless saw themselves as sitting ducks. Courage is needed going forward. This was never a tour for the faint of heart.
It is not so long ago that Nathan Lyon remained an outlier - just the groundsman from Adelaide who found himself in the right place at the right time. Rumour had it that when the "Five" were culled after the Hobart humiliation against South Africa last year, it was almost six, but Steve O'Keefe's timely injury (as far as Lyon was concerned) allowed respite. Given he is seventh on the list of all-time Australian Test wicket-takers, he might have felt aggrieved to be included among the scapegoats. England must now rather wish he had been. He spun hard and bounced high. Tim Paine took balls at chest height, as Alan Knott used to for Derek Underwood on wet pitches. Spectators and commentators lost count of the times English batsmen played and missed at those beautifully pitched balls, spinning like tops. As Shane Warne has long said: "Anyone half good can get it there. What matters is how it gets there and the things that happen on arrival." Lyon had something of Warne's fizz about him, even committing to a few pre-Test sledges that Warney might have mouthed himself. In Australian conditions, there is no better offbreak bowler in the world right now - not even R Ashwin.
For all the understandable talk of being in the game for the first three days and not making the most of opportunities to go forth and win in Brisbane, England are in Adelaide with their tail between their legs and a curfew of sorts in place. The wheels are not off but they are loosened. Alastair Cook needs to bat longer and Bairstow needs to bat higher. They must all find a way to attack Lyon and fend off Starc and Co. Then the trump cards can go to work. This is an Anderson-Broad-dependent match. Conditions are to be English-cool, even chilly, after the present heat wave is broken by rain on Friday. The ground will be full to capacity, the tension obvious and the expectation high.
The facts are that Smith's team deserve the untroubled place in which they find themselves. For all the nonsense of a ten-wicket defeat not reflecting England's contribution to the match, it was a ten-wicket defeat from whichever angle you come at it. Probably, in a sadistic sort of way, the Australians will have been disappointed in England's sudden demise. They might have liked to seen more punishment. The mental high ground is very much theirs, and odds-on favourites usually win for good reason. Upsetting those odds would be a mighty achievement.