Why we need tough first-class matches before and during the Ashes

Steven Smith: zero quarter given Getty Images

The only surprise about the result of the Ashes matches was the surprise at the result. Australia have conclusively better players in all but four positions, and, at home, are among the hardest nuts to crack. Australian cricketers are empowered by local conditions and unrivalled partisanship. Success on the cricket field is a part of national identity and celebrated as such. Only to a degree is this a conscious thing but it is inbred and breaks out uncontrollably - as it does, say, in Yorkshire - when cricket issues are at stake.

To win in Australia requires immense courage, meticulous planning and discipline. Once these are understood as non-negotiable by visiting teams, and embraced, the seemingly impossible becomes more manageable. If they are not understood, the mission goes back to impossible

England were caught off guard by many things other than just the loss of Ben Stokes. The corollary from the Stokes night out was one of them; the absence of his personality and leadership another. The English players would have had an easier passage had they been better prepared for the Australian days and nights ahead, though the result of the series would not have been very different. The fact is that the Ashes followed the words of the prophets and the chosen ones performed much as expected.

The Test match schedule was awesome in its intensity and laughable in its preliminaries. While England played a couple of relaxed matches over two and three days against "Cricket Australia XIs", the Australians were hands to the pump across three rounds of the four-day Sheffield Shield, the world's strongest first-class competition. The only preparation for battle is battle. If you don't have a feel for the tactics and artillery that are about to hit you, there is little chance of resistance.

It is the duty of the two chief executives to sort this out. Neither England nor Australia can agree to another Ashes tour without ensuring a relevant programme of first-class cricket in the lead-up to the first Test and, ideally, in the periods after each of the first three. Back-to-back Tests diminish the product: players tire quickly and the public too, unless the competition is tight. Though advance ticket sales were excellent, conversation was humdrum as it soon became clear that England were struggling for air.

The first point of reference in the protection of Test cricket is the protection of first-class cricket. If the states and counties are treated with indifference, so their attitude to the international calendar will become indifferent. It should be a requirement of every tour that a minimum of three - and ideally more - first-class matches are played by the tourists against full-strength teams, thus encouraging local interest and offering young players the chance to shine against the best out there. Many a career was once made by a sparkling hundred or a dramatic five-fer against the tourists.

It is not clever, should certainly not be strategic, and is both irresponsible and self-defeating for the home governing bodies to deny this. It would be idiotic for the visitors to turn it down. There is nothing at all wrong with the home team winning more often than not, but there is a long-term threat in the visiting team not competing. Cricket supports many formats and claims attention from all ages, both male and female. It must therefore ensure equal platforms and distribution. If T20 is promoted and displayed as the only game in town, it will one day become so. First-class cricket needs a leg up. High-profile, commercially vibrant, fully committed tour matches are a way to go.

England were not ready for five Tests in six and a half weeks: nor for the Kookaburra ball, the flat pitches, the opponents' aggression, or for that matter, their tactics in general. Nor were they ready for Steven Smith, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon; or for the media coverage, the inquisitions, the daily grind, and then the speed at which they would find themselves blown out of the water. Why were England not ready? In this 21st century alone, three Ashes series have been decided before Christmas for many of the same reasons. The answer is that Australia have had the better team - one made up of at least two world-class batsmen, strong fast bowling, and a nagging spinner. To be outplayed is bearable; to be thoroughly outmanoeuvred, however, is quite another.

A glance at England winners in Australia over the last 50 years tells us much. That master tactician Ray Illingworth had John Snow, the most magnificent and ruthless fast bowler; Derek Underwood, the meanest fingerspinner England ever saw; and Geoff Boycott, a man who would sell family for his wicket.

"In Australia success on the cricket field is a part of national identity and celebrated as such. It is inbred and breaks out uncontrollably - as it does, say, in Yorkshire - when cricket issues are at stake"

Mike Gatting led the "can't bat, can't bowl, can't field" team that were beaten by Queensland and New South Wales and vastly outplayed by Western Australia in the early stages of the tour. Suitably shaken out their stupor, Gatt's lot - Ian Botham, Allan Lamb, David Gower, John Emburey, Phil Edmonds et al - went on to win the Ashes series and both one-day competitions, which included Pakistan and a Viv Richards-led West Indies, still very much in their pomp.

Andrew Strauss had his own steely leadership to go with his wife's Australian passport - surely an advantage somehow. There was a bunch of hard-nosed batsmen, who took increasing toll of an oddly meek Australian attack; pace and high bounce with Steve Finn and Chris Tremlett; and spin, almost the equal of Underwood's, provided by the charismatic Graeme Swann.

A further glance at the Australian sides against them reveals more. All were in flux, for one reason or another, and became the subject of ill-considered selection and internal unrest. In 1970-71, Bill Lawry clung to the captaincy until the final Test, when Ian Chappell replaced him, while Dennis Lillee was a novice, picked on tearaway promise but not yet performance. In 1986-87, the selectors wanted one team and Allan Border most of another, some of whom were on the rebel tour in South Africa. In 2010-11, Ricky Ponting had hit a wall after the retirements of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer. It is barely worth mentioning 1978-79, when Mike Brearley's team won five of six Tests against an Australian side ravaged by the heist that was World Series Cricket.

Steve Smith's team was tearing at the leash. Far from flux, it soon settled as some brilliant selections gave substance to Smith's own uncompromising ambition. His extraordinary batting has been written about and discussed at length. His captaincy is worth reflection too, for it gives no quarter. He sets high standards and expects them to be sustained through fair weather and foul. You sense that were he on the high seas, he would offer no clemency to the vanquished, even at the point of surrender.

Did England understand the nature of this man? Had Joe Root's team any idea of the storm they were sailing into? It seemed not.

Was England's Australian coach the advantage he should have been? Possibly not. Had Trevor Bayliss, who has known Smith since his teenage years, spotted the almost alarming desire In the Australian captain's eye? From afar Bayliss appears less concerned by detail than by general approach. Many of the things that confounded Root and his team are things Bayliss takes for granted. Most of them are a way of Australian life, but to outsiders they take adjustment and application. In general, Bayliss is practical rather than forensic; shoulder-shrugging rather than dictatorial. He was clearly nonplussed by the late-night shenanigans, imagining that adult blokes picked to play cricket for their country might regard their selection not just as an opportunity but also a responsibility.

The end of it all came over three days of court-melting heat. Had this been the Australian Open tennis, 47.5 degrees centigrade would have been 9.5 past a postponement. For much of the Sydney Test, it was scorching, Nullarbor Plain stuff with which fiction weaves tales of an Australian hard land. England's plight was further exacerbated by Root's illness and absence but it was not as if his team gave up, just that they wilted day upon day and then faded away. Mediocre English cricket had proved no match for an irresistible mix of Australian brutality and efficiency. The future for Smith's team is bright. For the men of Root, it is uncertain. More questions have been asked than answered and those remaining answers are not be found in the seaming pitches of home but in the lessons to be learned abroad.