Australia v England, 2nd Test, Adelaide, 3rd day December 7, 2013

Wretched, weak, timid and gormless

England's batsmen threw their wickets away and set the team on a path to destruction in a display that must rank among their most humiliating

There have been many bleak days in the history of England cricket. There have been whitewashes, blackwashes, thrashings and humiliations. Not so long ago, in 1999, England slipped to the bottom of the Test rankings and were knocked out of the World Cup they were hosting before the theme song was released. They know the taste of ignominy.

But even by those standards, the third day of this Test ranks among the worst. England's batting was not just wretched and weak, it was staggeringly gormless. Had this been boxing, the referee would have stopped it. Had it been swimming, England would have drowned.

Australia deserve credit, of course. Mitchell Johnson, providing a reminder of how precious a resource extreme pace remains, has finally developed into the strike bowler Dennis Lillee predicted he could be more than a decade ago and some of the planning and field placements have been outstanding. The improvement from the Ashes series in England is as remarkable as it is admirable.

Johnson will dominate the headlines and rightly so. His pace, delivered from a slingy, left-arm action that is hard to pick-up, is a wonderful weapon for any captain and the manner in which he dealt with England's tail - and, for the sake of argument, let us call that everyone after Ian Bell - was brilliantly ruthless. There were, however, some mighty timid strokes from England.

But it is the self-inflicted harm that is most galling for England. It was the top-order wickets, frittered away with thoughtless strokes, that exposed the lower middle order and set England on a path of destruction.

They had, to some extent, done the hard work. Joe Root had seen off the early Johnson burst and earned the right to milk the spinners and, perhaps, the other seamers who were gaining little help from a pitch that remains flat.

But then Root, facing his first ball of the day from Nathan Lyon, swept it down the throat of deep-backward square leg as obligingly as if helping in catching practice and Michael Carberry, having displayed admirable composure, became frustrated by five successive maidens and pulled a short ball to midwicket from the tight but unthreatening Shane Watson.

But most culpable was Kevin Pietersen. Knowing that England were missing Jonathan Trott, knowing that the team contained some inexperienced players and knowing that Matt Prior was out of form, Pietersen had a responsibility to lead the resistance.

But instead of playing the situation, instead of playing straight and waiting for the poor ball, he played like a luxury player and, having taken a couple of steps down the pitch, attempted to flick one into the leg side despite seeing two men positioned for the stroke. They weren't in camouflage. It was careless cricket from a great player whose side needed a sizeable contribution.

From then on it was slaughter. Ben Stokes was beaten for pace, Prior looks devoid of confidence and must be clinging to his place by his fingernails and most of the lower order had neither the stomach nor the ability for the fight with Johnson. He took only one of the wickets of England's top five but, because the tail was exposed to him, he was charged through them with embarrassing ease.

There were a couple of diamonds amid the dust. Carberry saw off the new ball with a solidity that suggested he could prosper at this level, while Bell made it look as if he were playing in a different game to his team-mates with an innings of class and style. And Monty Panesar, despite an obvious lack of ability and a barrage of short balls, showed the courage to move into line and grind it out. It only served to highlight what would have been possible if other, more able, colleagues had shown such pluck and determination.

This pitch, just like the one in Brisbane, is blameless. Yet England have now failed to reach 180 in any of their three innings on this tour and have failed to make 400 for 19 successive innings. They lost 6 for 24 here, just as they had lost 6 for 9 in Brisbane. These are not aberrations; they are the norm. Their batting has failed.

Such failures will bring change. Andy Flower, who has achieved so much as head coach, may well decide he has taken the side as far as he can in his current role. The intensity that once ensured higher levels of performance, now seems to stifle and brood. Ashley Giles, with a lighter touch and a fresh approach, could well be coach by the time England return home. Whether that will represent a change or just a change of name, remains to be seen; Graham Gooch, too, may be nearing the end in his current role: his recent record as batting coach is hardly pretty.

Cricket would not be the captivating sport we love unless it was unpredictable and surprising. But if England claw their way back into this match or this series, it will surely rate as the greatest achievement of the current team's history.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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