England's death by a thousand off-cutters

It speaks volumes for the uneven contest in Adelaide that the groundstaff's struggle to pull the covers on to the pitch in the face of strong wind was the most competitive thing the crowd saw on day two of this match.

As England's bowlers made Australia's No. 9 look like Don Bradman (to be fair, Pat Cummins is a terrific cricketer), as Australia's selectors started to look like geniuses and as the score stretched beyond 400 - a substantial total on this surface - a familiar sensation began to creep over England: the Ashes were slipping away and there is almost nothing they can do about it. The air in Delhi may be full of smog. Here in Adelaide it was, from an England perspective, full only of despair.

It was on the second day of the Adelaide Test in 2013 that it became clear the Ashes were gone. This doesn't feel quite like that. There isn't a chasm between the sides and Australia do not have a once in a generation bowler like Mitchell Johnson. But they do look slightly the better team and England are going to have to produce a magnificent batting performance over the next couple of days if this series isn't to slide in a similar direction.

Might such talk be premature? England have lost only one wicket, after all, and in Joe Root and co. they have the batsmen to defy Australia. If they can make it to Perth only one down in the series, their hopes survive.

But England probably needed to win here. Having failed to take advantage of their opportunities in Brisbane, they will leave Adelaide knowing that conditions in the remaining venues are likely to suit Australia far more. England have won just once in Perth and it was before any of this team were born.

Besides, the series may only be seven days old, but some key points of difference have emerged between the sides. One is the batting of Steven Smith, another might well turn out to be the spin bowling of Nathan Lyon but the most obvious and defining is the difference in pace between the two attacks.

Sure, pace isn't everything. It is still necessary to move the ball laterally. It is still necessary to bowl with accuracy.

But just because something isn't everything, it doesn't mean it is nothing. The extra pace of the Australian bowlers asks questions of the England batsmen - especially the lower-order batsmen - that England's bowlers cannot ask in return. It creates cheap wickets while every breakthrough for England is something of a triumph. After three innings and 329.3 overs in the series, England have claimed just 18 wickets, after all.

There were times on the second day here when England bowled well. Stuart Broad's opening burst with the second new ball was excellent and Trevor Bayliss was probably exaggerating just a touch afterwards when he suggested the difference between this spell (which claimed one wicket) and the one at Trent Bridge in 2015 (which claimed eight wickets) was fortune. "At Trent Bridge they nicked everything," he said. "Here we didn't get the results we deserved."

But once the ball wears, once batsmen have settled in, trying to make a breakthrough becomes desperately hard work for this England attack. Even lower-order batsmen are able to settle in without the physical peril experienced by England's tail. And while Australia can blast out batsmen with pace - think of the dismissal of Jake Ball in Brisbane, fending the ball off his face - England are obliged to rely on the subtle skills of changes of pace and variations. The result? In Adelaide and Brisbane, England have suffered death by a thousand off-cutters.

It was England's lack of bite that persuaded Root to bowl first on winning the toss. Recognising that England have struggled to bowl sides out away from the green, green grass of home, he reasoned their best chance of making inroads was in the first session of the first day. There was some logic in that, too, but his senior seamers failed to bowl full enough and, as a consequence, failed to utilise any help there may have been from the conditions.

If Root's logic appears flawed, it is worth reflecting on the number of overs bowled by England in the first innings of their last seven Tests overseas. It is: 162 (Rajkot); 129.4 (Vizag); 138.2 (Mohali); 182.3 (Mumbai); 190.4 (Chennai); 130.3 (Brisbane); 149 (Adelaide). It provides clear and irrefutable proof that, away from home, England lack the weapons to damage opposition batting line-ups. They desperately lack quality fast bowlers and a spinner that can, at least, ease the burden on the seamers in the first innings. Craig Overton, it might be noted, bowled over 30 overs in an innings for the first time in his career in Adelaide.

Asked about the lack of fast bowlers available to England at present - and the depressing truth is, the best bowlers in England are either playing or injured - Bayliss had a couple of theories. One was that pitches in England didn't suit them ("They aren't conducive to fast bowling," he said. "Maybe that's a little disheartening"), another that the high volume of cricket might be a factor - and it is true the likes of Jamie Overton, Steven Finn, Liam Plunkett and Mark Wood have all had fitness problems in the recent past - and another that it may simply be a cyclical issue.

But when this series is reviewed by the ECB in a few months, it's worth recalling a couple of things. For a start, they - 'Teflon' Strauss et al - were the ones who pushed the County Championship ever further into the margins of the season - thereby negating the need for spinners and fast bowlers - to create windows for white-ball cricket. And they are the ones who appoint the coaches and set the policies at Bluffborough where, for all the millions invested, the number of quality spinners and fast bowlers produced is negligible.

There are alternative theories. Fast bowling coaches such as Ian Pont and Steffan Jones - both of whom are outside the ECB 'bubble' - insist - that "pace can be taught," as Jones puts it. It is, as he says, "about having the knowledge and skills as a coach." Both men maintain that coaching has become too much about emotional support and tactics and not enough about technical insight. And, as England battle with an epidemic of stress fractures to their fast bowlers, they are words that have some resonance.

"It is remarkable that in every other throwing, running, jumping and ballistic movement sport, things improve year on year," Pont told ESPNcricinfo on Sunday. "Yet in fast bowling, we saw balls bowling in excess of 90mph in the 1930s Bodyline series by Harold Larwood and 40 years ago we had Jeff Thomson bowling faster than anyone today. I don't know of another sport that has moved on so little in speed terms than fast bowling.

"Pace unravels the best of batting defences but more importantly gives you options. When you see a medium pace bowling attack in Test cricket you realise the captain is out of options.

"We have a coach appointed with the title of fast bowling coach, but they do not have any idea how to coach speed. We have coaches out there teaching fast bowling with no idea where pace is generated or how to develop it.

"The technical aspect of fast bowling is overlooked in England and we are paying for it. Speed is coachable. But you have to understand what technical factors create that speed and then coach them in with the right drills. The answer is to go back to where you train and change those protocols."

There is a danger that all these issues will all be forgotten when England return home. If the counties produce green-seamers for the 2018 Test series against Pakistan and India, England may again prove hard to beat and delude themselves that all is well. But if England really want to improve, if they want to be better than home-track bullies, they need to confront the overwhelming evidence of the statistics and reflect on both the underlying reasons and the long-term solutions.