Australia show their truer colours
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