Succession issues prompt hard questions
Michael Clarke's Australians came to England hoping earnestly to erase 14 years of unhappy Ashes history on these shores by winning for the first time since 2001. Facing the prospect of heavy defeat in three days at Edgbaston, they are confronted by realities set rather more deeply in time. Only once in the 133-year history of these encounters has a team successfully overturned a 2-1 deficit to claim the urn.
That side just happened to be led by Donald Bradman, who had the decided advantage of relying on his own epochal run-making to help fashion Australia's recovery in 1936-37 (from 2-0 down). There could be no greater contrast with this team, who have melted away in Cardiff and Birmingham with an alarming fragility that almost exactly mirrors that of Clarke, a once-prolific leader now hanging desperately onto his captaincy and even his place in the team.
Clarke's battle with himself is emblematic of the widest problem afflicting this touring party - a telling struggle to work out when is the right time to let the curtain fall on a career. At the same time as England have rushed towards victory, debate has raged in Australia over whether the selectors dealt too harshly with Brad Haddin by failing to recall him after he stood down from the Lord's Test for family reasons.
Influential voices have been raised in criticism of Darren Lehmann and Rod Marsh, not least those of Ricky Ponting, Ian Healy, Matthew Hayden and Shane Warne. There has been the claim that by leaving out Haddin, the team have done away with their "family first" policy, and needlessly disrespected one of the pillars of the team's recent success by discarding a loyal gloveman and lieutenant to Clarke. There is talk of players disgruntled by the decision.
The issue has travelled widely, even being the subject of an op-ed piece on the women's issues website Mamamia. In it, the writer refers to Haddin as an "Australian legend" whose dumping sends "a terrible message to a generation of men who are grappling with the shifting sands of masculinity". It makes no reference to the fact that over the past 12 months, Haddin has averaged somewhere in the region of 15 with the bat, while also showing signs of decline with the gloves.
While it is possible to agree with the naysayers for human reasons, and to acknowledge that it was a difficult sequence of events to justify, it is also necessary to take a look more broadly at Haddin's case, and indeed those of the other senior members of this touring party who have struggled so much thus far - Ryan Harris, Shane Watson and Clarke. All these men had contributed greatly to Australian cricket, and been key figures in the XI who regained the Ashes at home in 2013-14 with a riotous 5-0 sweep of England then beat South Africa 2-1 away.
Since that frenzied final day in Cape Town it was generally thought that this team could carry on to England in 2015, using their experience and hunger for success to finally regain the urn in the northern hemisphere. This was a view held not only by the selectors but by the players, much of the public and indeed the travelling media contingent. But over time the hard evidence of performance has mounted that this would be difficult, even impossible. Haddin's value as a member of the squad is enormous, but a less compassionate panel might have chosen Nevill ahead of him in the West Indies.
Likewise Watson may have found himself behind Mitchell Marsh on that tour. In the case of Harris, he was actually allowed to miss the West Indies entirely to be at home for the birth of his first child, Carter. This was hardly the action of a team that is unfeeling to family concerns, and as it has turned out not even a precise and careful "pre-season" preparation for England was enough to stop Harris' battered right knee from giving out.
As for Clarke, his often fraught relationship with the selectors was not enough for them to move him on - something that requires the support of Cricket Australia management and its board of directors to achieve. Neither were ready to discard him before this tour, and it was arguable that his experience in England was necessary, rather than tossing Steve Smith into the furnace as a new leader. But Clarke's struggles have multiplied with each match, and now Steven Finn has made him look something like the fretful figure Ricky Ponting became by the end.
Selection decisions such as these are not easy to make. Rod Marsh and Lehmann are known as players' men, often preferring to rail against administrators rather than tow the establishment line. Having been on the receiving end themselves, they know the weighty nature of these decisions. But it is possible that by their very desire to do the right thing by some, they have left themselves too little room to manoeuvre on this tour. Certainly a harsher, earlier call on Haddin would have taken place without the complications of family that have overtaken him here.
Australia's succession issues go deeper than the form of the incumbents. Few of the players in domestic cricket have shown themselves prolific or proficient enough to earn their spots, leaving the likes of Adam Voges and Chris Rogers to be selected for short-term reasons. Voges has struggled under the glare of Ashes pressure and may now find himself dropped for Nottingham. Rogers has thrived by contrast yet is set to retire at the end of the series. The identity of his replacement is far from obvious.
Other matters of timing have also emerged. As Australia's pace attack struggled for control of the scoreboard in both Cardiff and Birmingham, where unlike Lord's they did not have the advantage of a vast score behind them, it was possible to conclude that Peter Siddle would have been a useful man on these surfaces. Explosive as Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood can be, they were unable to offer the right support to the hostility of Mitchell Johnson when Australia glimpsed a brief window back into this game on the second morning.
What all this adds up to is a team now needing something like a miracle to retain the Ashes over the next two-and-a-bit Test matches. Whether they can do it will depend largely upon whether the selectors can find the right combinations from a squad that they announced on a March morning in the afterglow of the World Cup victory in Melbourne. At the time Australia's future looked very much assured. Now it seems undeniably grimmer, particularly with no Bradman at the helm for the pointy end of the Ashes.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig