Robo England suffer malfunction
There was a time, not even that long ago, that watching England play was like watching a well-organized show dance at a major awards ceremony. Every single person knew their role. The moves had been well practised beforehand. It was entertaining without ever being fun. And behind the scenes you knew there was someone really angry, and focused, with a clipboard and walkie talkie.
It was safe, calculated and effective.
In Adelaide last time, England took wickets with the new ball on a good batting pitch, then kept Australia below three an over until they had picked them off for less than 300. With the bat, Kevin Pietersen, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood batted with ease and put on a score that meant batting twice would probably not be needed. On a flat pitch they waited, used Graeme Swann perfectly and rotated the other end well, until Australia just faded away.
It was their first win of the series. It was their blueprint working exactly how they would want it: magic from KP, stunning effectiveness and professionalism from everyone else.
Now England are not that team. If their batting has showcased that for the last 18 Test innings - during which they have failed to reach 400 - their morning session in the field showed that their whole game was slipping away.
Australia started the day 5 for 276. In no one's estimation were they massively ahead of the game on this Adelaide pitch. Yet England played as if the pitch was completely dead and the only way to get wickets was through improvisation and enterprise. Essentially, England strayed away from the sort of Sensible Solutions cricket they play so well, and went a bit funky.
It very nearly worked. With the new ball still only 12 overs old, Monty Panesar had Michael Clarke dancing down the wicket and spooning the ball into the outfield. It could have gone anywhere. England's decision to bounce, and bounce, Australia with the short ball, also almost paid off as Brad Haddin skied a ball towards a slow-to-react Panesar.
But it is here where you start to wonder what is wrong with England. In their glory years, would they have tried to bounce a batsman out with two fielders in the deep if one of them was their worst fielder? And would they have played two of their attacking options at once, leaving them very little to fall back on with two quality batsman at the crease? It didn't seem like them.
Neither did the capacity to miss six chances in the field. Michael Carberry dropped a catch an eight-year-old would take, then followed it up with a failed run-out that a professional cricketer should have executed. Missing that many chances in one innings on a pitch like this is like headbutting a wall on the hottest day of the year while listening to death metal with the heater on. It's hard to imagine, let alone remember, a time under Andy Flower when they would have missed that many.
Despite Clarke's poor beginning, he soon got completely on top of Panesar and Swann had to be brought on. At the other end, the newish ball was continually brutalised into the pitch by Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Ben Stokes. Haddin and Clarke are essentially designed for pitches like this. England miscalculated and were far from effective.
Cook's captaincy had short covers, two men out for the short ball, a short cover and at times no one behind square on the off side. For Swann it was an in-out field that he rarely, if ever, uses. It was as if Cook was trying to throw every idea he had ever daydreamed about against a wall and hope it stuck. It did not.
If England won the last Ashes by using a formula; they are trying to win this one with random attacking events.
The one thing Cook never really tried was just drying the runs and bowling in the channel outside off. England's staple meal. When an England bowler did bowl a decent length ball in a good area, it looked like it could work. Clarke plainly just missed one and Haddin nicked behind from a no-ball. But that revolutionary tactic wasn't followed through with.
You could argue that they were spooked by Shane Warne's constant abuse of Cook's defensive ways. But despite the column inches and ratings they get, it's doubtful they care about anything Warne says. It could also be a classic case of fear of the flat Adelaide Oval pitch. This is the pitch that more than once turned South Australia's Jason Gillespie and Mark Harrity into giant flapping birds, because of the sheer lack of life in it.
The suspicion is growing that somehow, in a staggeringly short amount of time, England have lost faith in the way they play. It can happen to any team on a tour. Especially a hell tour, which this isn't yet, but which it is hinting it might be. From the professional robotic machine they have turned into flat desperate gamblers.
What is worse for them is Australia have changed too.
The flawed side who tried hard in the UK have (with help from England) started to look like the sort of aggressive beasts of doom they were in their heydays. Ryan Harris made a king pair in Adelaide in 2010, this time he blitzed a not-out 50. Doug Bollinger's career was all but ended the last time in Adelaide; he could be back next week in Perth. At this rate, Xavier Doherty will be a shock inclusion for Sydney and take a ten-wicket haul.
Mitchell Johnson was rested/rotated/dropped from this Test three years ago. Today it took only one over from Johnson to turn a jolly crowd into the angry mouth-breathers baying for blood from days of old. It was glorious. It was unscientific. It was brutal.
In one ball, Johnson beat Cook in almost every way possible. Last time in Adelaide, Cook made 148. This time he missed the ball by what seemed like 148 metres.
Adelaide is different from three years ago. Australia are different from three years ago. So, too, are England.