Reactive England dance to Australia's tune
During a charity golf day in the 1990s, Seve Ballesteros settled over the tee and announced to a large gallery that he would hit a deliberate slice. As the laughter from the stroke subsided, he declared that now the fun was out of the way, his next would be fairway-bound. When this stroke also veered right into the trees, no-one laughed. Golf's master manipulator had lost control.
Over the first two Ashes Tests in Australia, England have increasingly worn the puzzled expression that passed across Ballesteros' face that day. For so long a team of tremendous self-discipline and application, shepherded by another master manipulator in Andy Flower, they have lost nearly all semblance of calm and control.
This has been most evident in their fevered batting against Mitchell Johnson, but it has also been visible with the ball and in the field. Australia have goaded England into dancing in a manner with which they are neither familiar nor comfortable, resulting in two of the greatest maulings of their history. A team known for steadiness, determination and method are employing nothing of the sort. A team known for playing within their limitations have forgotten what they are.
Stuart Broad summed all this up in the space of an extraordinary sequence in the first over of the final morning in Adelaide. Having hooked Peter Siddle for six, he perished to a catch at deep square leg attempting to repeat the shot next ball. Broad is better than that, yet he found himself doing it just the same. Kevin Pietersen, Alastair Cook, Matt Prior and Graeme Swann, to name four senior players, can all tell of similar torments.
In the aftermath of Adelaide, Cook had no trouble admitting that his team had fallen away from what worked for them. Frank words have been exchanged within the team across the second Test, particularly after the batsmen played dead on the third day. "We haven't batted very well, and when you do that people start looking at shot selection and execution," he said. "We've probably gone away from what we've done [previously]. I lead from the front in that way, and I've got to make sure I'm better than that."
By contrast, Australia's progress has been the result of working out precisely what their most effective "brand" of Ashes cricket would be. It has been a long and arduous search, spanning several years and many players and support staff. As recently as the start of the England tour, Michael Clarke's team looked no closer than ever to finding the key to locating their best. The appointment of Darren Lehmann as coach helped, as did Clarke's resignation as a selector, stabilising the atmosphere of the dressing room and the tenor of selection.
A period of planning and discovery ensued. The batting line-up was shuffled relentlessly in England, drawing valid criticism at the time but resulting in conclusions from Lehmann and Clarke about who needed to be in their team. David Warner was tried in the middle order then returned to the top. Chris Rogers joined him. Shane Watson settled in to No. 3, Steve Smith to No. 5. Clarke left his comfort zone to walk in at a more suitable No. 4. George Bailey won his place at No. 6 by attacking R Ashwin in India. Ed Cowan, Phillip Hughes and Usman Khawaja were discarded.
Among the bowlers, Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon earned their places by bowling to a high standard in England, though the spinner had to fight especially hard for his place after twice being dropped for lesser twirlers. Johnson had not been risked in the Tests in England but moved to the forefront of the selectors' thoughts by frightening out several batsmen in the ODIs that followed. With Harris and Siddle more than capable of keeping things tight, Johnson became a viable shock weapon of the kind the great Australian sides have always favoured.
"It's been about trying to work out how you use him best in the team," Clarke said of Johnson. "I think our attack right now, and that includes Nathan Lyon and Shane Watson and the other two quicks, really complement each other. That allows Mitch to be used the way I feel is best for our team right now. And Mitch has played a number of roles through his career. But I think his role in this team right now is complementing our attack."
Attitudes were also examined. Among the least savoury moments of the England tour was Warner's punch of Joe Root in a Birmingham bar following the loss of Australia's opening Champions Trophy match to England. While Warner was punished for his action, team leaders were appalled by the thought that Australian players had been out socialising with Ashes opponents after their first loss of the summer. While sledging is not the subject of explicit team discussion, the tourists were reminded to remember who their opponents were, and that their job included making life uncomfortable for England at every opportunity.
Back in Australia, the selectors contributed to this by denying Cook's team the sight of any particularly fast bowling until Brisbane. The one spell of decent pace England did glimpse, by Ben Cutting for Australia A in Hobart, revealed frailties that Johnson, Harris, and Siddle would soon exploit. Tymal Mills and Harry Gurney were flown over by the ECB to provide left-arm pace practice, but their provision contributed as much to Australia's notion that Johnson would pose problems as it prepared the Englishmen themselves.
All the while Australia played a game of public provocation, speaking of their desire to be aggressive while chiding England for pursuing what Lehmann called a "dour" style of play. Cook, Flower and others registered their irritation at this goading, often referring to the results that style had reaped. But over time it had some sort of effect, at least subconsciously, leading England to a Brisbane posture that seemed more about the fight than the process.
So when Clarke unleashed his pacemen on England at the Gabba, there was a sense of fight-or-flight reflex about the tourists. Apart from Ian Bell, numerous batsmen simply found themselves doing what they do not regularly do. The salient example came from Jonathan Trott, Flower's "rock" at No. 3, suddenly swinging at Johnson in a manner that ensured his batting destruction. Trott's problems were revealed to be far deeper than those on the field, but plenty of others were similarly cornered into repeated error. Their reactions transcended their actions.
The Gabba result was painful and pivotal, establishing a pattern to be maintained in Adelaide. Not even a pitch that might easily have been made to Flower's specifications could change the flow of things. So pivotal in England, Swann has been neutralised almost totally by a batting line-up handpicked to confound him. Lacking his wickets or control, the rest of the attack has sagged under the weight of added responsibility. If not quite so clearly as the batsmen, England's bowlers are also lacking their former cohesion. Dropped first-innings catches completed a picture of misery.
After the early hiccups on the first afternoon, Australia played vibrant, aggressive, confident and openly hostile cricket in Adelaide. England were harried, hurried, haunted and harangued. Jaded by fielding for two days, many of their batsmen hit out in a manner that suggested what they really wanted was a way out. Even Cook, the indefatigable leader, found himself hooking at the first short ball he received. Like Ballesteros, England have lost control of their game in a very public fashion. Three days before Perth is a very meagre space of time in which to locate it.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here