Australia v England, 2nd Test, Adelaide, 5th day December 9, 2013

Reactive England dance to Australia's tune

England have lost control of their game in a very public fashion

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Andrew on December 12, 2013, 2:49 GMT

    @Nutcutlet on (December 10, 2013, 9:44 GMT) - "... Let's hope Cook wins the toss this time. We just might get a contest!" - what do you think he would do if he won the toss? I felt at the Gabba - Cook would of been happy to lose the toss, as I think he would of been spooked by the look of the Gabba (other Pommy captains have been before). Adelaide was a bad toss to lose. Thing about the WACA is, often the 2nd day is way quicker than the 1st!

  • Cameron on December 11, 2013, 9:53 GMT

    Australian batsman play the cross bat shots better than any in the world, please do bounce them, it is good to watch bowlers be smashed inot the stands, it is good for the spectators. They must play Finn, the pressure is immesnse his career will be on the line, like many of the other England players.

  • Allan on December 11, 2013, 2:03 GMT

    @ Joel Carter Nice dream, and then there is reality. To do what you are suggesting England have to transform, not just improve, but totally change their collective form. Their best score in Adelaide was still 200 runs below par on a batting paradise. Everyone is talking about Mitchell Johnson, but the only top order batsmen he got out was Cook and Prior (both out of form). He blitzed through the lower order to end first innings quickly. The threat of Siddle and Harris has been forgotten, they will be stronger at WACA because Adelaide was hard work - look out! Most importantly, Johnson did get key top order wickets in 2011 Ashes at WACA, against an England team that had been all over Australia in the first two tests. Reality is looming for England Joel, I think you are afraid to face it.

  • Allan on December 11, 2013, 1:51 GMT

    @TheChap What are you talking about? England rested at home between these Ashes series, Australia went to India! I think the Ashes should be played back to back like this every 2 years. Just like we used to play South Africa, 3 tests in Oz then 3 tests in SA all in the one summer. A fair indication of the strongest team.

  • Sat on December 10, 2013, 22:49 GMT

    All English batsmen had a decent outings in the middle.. every one had a half century to their name in one of the first four innings.. I strongly think they will click in the next test...Mark Prior especially is very important for them.. He demoralizes the teams with some great batting to the end.. Kevin has to come up with one of those special innings aswell...

  • Dummy4 on December 10, 2013, 12:55 GMT

    @chitti_cricket Sorry but SA would NOT face Englands fate playing this Aussie side. The fact is Australia has a fantastic bowling attack (probably as good as South Africa's) but their batting is still frail it has just not been at all tested by the England attack.

    Steyn, Philander, Morkel, Duminy, Kallis & Tahir will be a very different prospect for the Australian batsmen. On the other hand South Africa has an immense batting line-up with a number of all time greats currently playing and still in excellent form Amla, De Villers, Duminy are in great form and Smith and Kallis are all time greats who can always be relied upon.

    Luckily Australia will soon tour SA so we will get to see. It will be a hard fought contest and a great test of this SA team's claim to greatness. I expect them to prevail.

  • Dummy4 on December 10, 2013, 12:16 GMT

    Englands best chance is to first select Steven Finn. Someone with a bit of extra pace who can Bounce the Aussie batsmen just like MJ is doing to England. Get Bell batting at number 3 with Root at number 5. Win the toss, put Aus in and get them out under 250. Time for Cook to play a long innings and KP to knock Midge out of the attack and give him something to Think about. Should not be long Before he loses the plot again and starts throwing pies... 2-1 after Perth test.

  • ian on December 10, 2013, 9:44 GMT

    Changes for the WACA: I can't see much of a case for retaining Swann. He has been consistently ineffectual both in wicket-taking & in terms of economy. He offers nothing with the bat against serious pace, and although his catching might be missed in the slips, slip-catching expertise doesn't safeguard a place. Bresnan has his berth, IMO. The batting remains the same, with Prior #6, Stokes #7. This signals to Stokes that his primary role is as an impact bowler on this surface. So Bres bats #8; Broad #9; Jimmy #10 & Monty #11. I'm with Bob Willis on this one. Throwing in a novice like Rankin, for this Test especially, is unwise & smacks of panic. That said, I would have liked Rankin to have had a Test or two under his belt by now as he represents a future that needs to be mapped out. BTW, I wish people would stop suggesting players that are not in the touring party - those are just silly suggestions, aren't they? Let's hope Cook wins the toss this time. We just might get a contest!

  • Cam on December 10, 2013, 7:21 GMT

    @LooksPlumbFromHere, I agree about the nature of the thumping, we declared twice and England managed only 12 wickets, just a few more than Mitch. I do disagree the English bowlers will be helped in Perth. Any short stuff from them will be punished to the boundary as we are cross bat experts. Mitch will be too hot to handle. England's only chance is to bring in Finn and Rankin and ask them to bowl full and fast playing for caught behind the wicket. Ultimately England have no answer to our bowling so there's very little chance they can make a total to win a match do they need results with the ball.

  • David on December 10, 2013, 6:53 GMT

    Aussies have also taken most of their catches and some real screamers as well.