England v Australia, 3rd Investec Test, Old Trafford, 5th day August 5, 2013

Australia show their truer colours

The recent run of defeats has made people think Australia are worse than they are. Old Trafford was a fairer reflection on their standing, but they must continue to improve over the rest of this series

As the supervillain Hank Scorpio sagely observed while counselling Homer Simpson in his under-siege bunker, you can't argue with the little things. "It's the little things that make up life," he says, while his headquarters burns and crumbles around him. It is tempting to look at the past year and think Australian cricket is a similar smouldering wreck. At Lord's and in India, the resemblance was uncanny. Elsewhere in the Investec Ashes, and against South Africa last summer, the little things have hurt.

A better forecast here, another wicket there - it could have been a pretty good year for Australia. Of course, hypotheticals change nothing. Australia didn't beat South Africa, were embarrassed in India and have now failed to regain the Ashes. Since the start of their last home summer, Australia have played 13 Tests against four teams and have not won a match against anyone but Sri Lanka. The statistic is damning, but also damn deceptive. It doesn't tell how close they have come.

Yes, this is a squad whose worst is woeful and has been for several years. From 47 all out in Cape Town to a historic loss to New Zealand in Hobart, from a series of humiliations in India to another debacle at Lord's, it is a side that finds ways to sink to new lows. It is a team that also finds ways to threaten the world's best. They outplayed South Africa in Brisbane and Adelaide, but turned neither into a victory, and with a weakened attack were crushed in Perth.

On this trip, they were a Brad Haddin tickle away from winning at Trent Bridge, and a few rainclouds from a victory push at Old Trafford. They travel to Durham at 0-2; had a few quirks of fate fallen differently it could have been 2-1 to Australia. But that would have been misleading, as misleading as if they'd lost in Manchester and become the first Australia team in 125 years to lose seven straight Tests. They are not that bad. But nor are they 2-1 good.

The best reflection of where Michael Clarke's team stands is the ICC Test rankings, where they sit fourth. There is no shame in that, but no pride either. And they cannot expect to rise beyond that while their batting relies so heavily on Clarke. He is the reason they can compete with the teams above them. It was no coincidence that Australia's most threatening performance so far on this tour came when Clarke scored big at Old Trafford.

At times, he takes other batsmen with him. Against South Africa at the Gabba, his 259 was accompanied by hundreds from Ed Cowan and Michael Hussey. In the next Test in Adelaide, his 230 was supported by another century from Hussey and one from David Warner. Here, his 187 came alongside contributions, though not tons, from Chris Rogers and Steven Smith.

During Clarke's captaincy the only batsmen outside Hussey to score Test tons in an innings when Clarke hasn't have been Warner, Matthew Wade and Shaun Marsh. Warner is the only one to have done so against top four opposition - India at the WACA. Until the rest of Australia's batsmen find ways to score big when Clarke doesn't, they will struggle to beat the best sides.

Clarke said after the Old Trafford draw that he felt the gap between Australia and England was minimal. In bowling, yes. In batting, no. Clarke remains Australia's only centurion; England have had two tons from Ian Bell and one each from Joe Root and Kevin Pietersen. That the most prolific scorer of centuries in their squad, Alastair Cook, is yet to make one in this series only highlights England's batting depth and quality.

Shane Watson is Australia's second most experienced batsman but his role remains fluid, and for some time has been more water than wine. Rogers and Smith showed signs of batting big in Manchester but could not go on. Usman Khawaja is yet to make a serious impression on Test cricket and Warner's role needs to be defined.

For now, the Ashes are gone, but the next series starts later this year. The next two Tests at Chester-le-Street and The Oval are a chance for Australia's batsmen to show they are Test quality, to prove that players beyond Clarke can bat big. To give England pause for thought ahead of the return series. Using the next two Tests to settle on a batting order would help, for that has been as changeable as the Manchester weather.

Australia move on to Durham without the Ashes, but at least they are not in a smouldering wreck.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on August 7, 2013, 16:06 GMT

    There have been some "what ifs" and "but onlys" in the 13 matches since the last Aus summer. But I'd say an interesting fact is that the Aus seam attack is considered their best weapon, but in those 13 matches they've only taken 20 wickets on 5 occasions (Once on this tour, and once against SA at home and 3x against SL at home)

  • Dummy4 on August 7, 2013, 9:47 GMT

    @Leggie: you make a great point, especially if you throw the overall run-rate into the mix.

  • Darren on August 7, 2013, 8:25 GMT

    As a proud Aussie it pains me to say England have played the better cricket and deserve to retain the urn - until November for . But lets not get to carried away about the quality of teams playing. Australia have lost 7 in a row including 5-0 in India and 2 in England while England were a hairs breath away(thanks to an outstanding 9th wicket partnership) from losing a series to NZ - not considered a cricket powerhouse. ALL of the talk in the first 3 tests have focussed on the umpires and very little about the players. Lets hope we actually get 22 players being the focus of the play and not the umpires and that the actually give us some quality, consistent cricket. Both teams have some very good players, but on the world stage, well recent results would seem to indicate that they tend to fall short of world class teams.

  • Neil on August 7, 2013, 8:07 GMT

    There are some interesting comments on here, especially from Australian fans. This team is not that bad at all. Clarke is a world class batsman and dynamic captain (particularly when compared with ours!), Harris is excellent when fit. Siddle to me is a mystery,I simply cannot work out how he gets so many wickets, looks innocuous but always dangerous and will run through walls for his team. Lyons is clearly a work in progress but better than any other slow man that you have. Starc, unfortunately for you will always give away too many four balls, rather like Finn.

    The batting is clearly in need of work and Watson would be long gone if he didn't bowl so well. But he does not have the technique to open in England or where the ball is moving. I find it a mystery why Australians are in love with Warner, a T20 slogger who will fail more often than score big. Smith and Rogers have guts and will fight for their wicket at least and understand the importance of batting time in test cricket.

  • steven on August 7, 2013, 6:43 GMT

    It will be interesting to see which Australia turn up in Durham. After getting so close at TB, they followed it up with an awful performance at lords. After that pasting though they showed true character in a top performance at OT. They have to ensure they don't do what they did the last time they got close to a win and repeat Lords. Durham won't suit their batsman. Whereas OT was a bit like an ozzie pitch I don't think it will be pacey or bouncy but will move off the seam ALOT. Jackson Bird is a must in these conditions and if the weather holds I do not think the 5th day will be needed and so it will be a case of which team can scramble the most runs together in tricky situations.

  • Dummy4 on August 7, 2013, 4:54 GMT

    Very good piece and the most spot on evaluation of Australian Cricket that has been written for some time now.

  • Dummy4 on August 7, 2013, 4:15 GMT

    The color of Australia has changed to dull and pale. I would say Australia showed a new color temporarily during end of Summer! Fall is already due next month in this part of the world!!! I guess true colors for Australia would be sledging and winning the games and Clark seems to be a GENTLEMAN in the gentleman game!!

  • Steve on August 7, 2013, 3:46 GMT

    Disregarding DRS or who is the better side I think the most important thing that needs to be addressed in world cricket is doctoring pitches to suit the home side. Pitches should always be prepared for the good of cricket. India is a classic example of how doctoring home pitches to accommodate spin has hamstrung them on the world stage. Too many times they have had potential world beating teams only to be undone when touring because they rarely bat on seam friendly conditions at home. England have done it during this series and will probably pay when they go to Australia. Australia have always had their iconic grounds. The Gabba is always seaming on day one and then settles. Sydney always turns, the WACCA is always fast and bouncy, Adelaide is always flat and Melbourne is always Melbourne. A touring team can always expect to get what they know they will get.

  • Jo on August 6, 2013, 22:47 GMT

    @pvr726: On the spot. When we saw Aussies opponents in their dominant days, we quickly concluded, buts and ifs are for losers, if you apply yourself up-to the task, opposition does not matter at all. I am surprised to see so much of sympathy when they are at receiving end. Again it is their turn to face it off... probably needed for them to fight back as every other team did in past 15 years :-)... considering that.. they still have a long pay off period remaining, which I don't think they will exercise all of them... :-)

  • Dummy4 on August 6, 2013, 21:39 GMT

    @IronCobra: "I hope Joe Root scores some runs and keeps his position as an opener. That will be terrific for Australia in the return Ashes. You always want a free wicket at the top of the order and Root is one for sure. What a MISERABLE EXCUSE for an opening batsman he is!"

    So this is why he's currently averaging more than any Australian batsman in this series (or career, actually) bar Michael Clarke, is it? I tell you what, you guys wouldn't mind him playing for you. Then you might not have been 128 all out.