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Joe Root's wide-eyed wannabes embody England's decade of decay

Adelaide drubbing almost warrants an apology to the cast of 2006's gut-wrenching defeat

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Adelaide. It's a venue that can still bring England fans of a certain generation out in hives. The scene, in December 2006, of a defeat so agonising, so unexpected, and so emphatic that it confirmed, in a single ghastly afternoon, that the team's 15-month hold on the Ashes was over almost before it had begun.
But is it better to have lived and lost, than never to have lived at all? Fifteen years on, Adelaide is now the scene of a defeat so humdrum, so telegraphed, and so much less emphatic than it deserved to be, it almost warrants an apology to that class of 2006 - a once-mighty team that had passed a peak that few England sides have ever countenanced, and found itself being crushed in a vengeance mission by one of the greatest Test line-ups there's ever been.
For all that England ended up in a mangled heap on that benighted tour, the identities of their vanquishers offer a degree of mitigation. Hayden and Langer, McGrath and Warne. Ponting in the midst of the greatest year of his mighty career. Part of the reason the tour is so lampooned is that no Ashes campaign had been whitewashed since 1920-21, but knowing what we now know about England's manifest inadequacies Down Under, the wonder is that that team ever seemed to have a toe-hold in the series at all.
There are no such caveats for this latest performance. On the first morning of the 2021 version, it was Australia with all the excuses, as they muddled through the loss of their brand-new captain Pat Cummins to a Covid scare, and ended up fielding a new-look seam attack whose second-most experienced member was the five-Test rookie Cameron Green.
And yet, by the final day, that emergency line-up had gelled so emphatically that only a fleeting moment of Australian sloppiness could save their opponents from total ignominy. Had Alex Carey not made the first mis-step of a near-faultless debut series behind the stumps, he would have sent his opposite number Jos Buttler on his way for a pair, to cap what would surely have been England's most miserable Test performance since Gavin Hamilton at Johannesburg in 1999-2000.
Instead, Buttler clung onto his lifeline to compile a performance of all-too-rare application, surviving for 207 balls and nearly four-and-a-half hours (until he stepped on his stumps in a fittingly tragicomic reversion to the mean).
His efforts still earned rave reviews in an otherwise peevish press conference from his captain, Joe Root, but the only truly exceptional aspect of Buttler's innings was in its literal definition. He was the exception in another England performance in which next to no-one else turned up - Chris Woakes' 44 could not mask his ineffectiveness with the ball - as he produced a Brigadier Blockathon of the type that Paul Collingwood once made his trademark, most notably in three separate (and successful) rearguards, at Cardiff, Centurion and Cape Town in 2009-10.
But as Root also noted, it would have been more helpful to the collective cause had Buttler and his middle-order team-mates managed to turn up in England's critical first innings, instead of forming part of the second wave of collapse that all but rendered his final-day efforts an exercise in face-saving.
That, after all, was what Collingwood had managed back in 2006, before that original Adelaide catastrophe went south. His career-best 206 in the first innings, in a partnership of 310 with Kevin Pietersen, was precisely the sort of performance that Root might have been calling for this week, when he complained that his team had repeated "the same mistakes" that had let them down at the Gabba.
He was including himself in that assessment too, of course, as well as Dawid Malan - England's only other form batter on this tour - both of whom had made a brace of battling half-centuries in a losing cause in Brisbane. But, unlike Collingwood and KP 15 years earlier, who had also found their feet in the second innings of a crushing Gabba defeat, neither Root nor Malan could translate their time at the crease into the sort of massive, uncompromising daddy hundreds that are the secret of success in Australia.
It seems a simplistic complaint in the context of a team that has now failed to pass 200 in 11 completed innings this calendar year. But where else, in all honesty, do England think their runs are going to come from? Ollie Pope, the great white hope, is now 22 Tests and 1013 runs into what ought to be the next great England career, but he is currently the epitome of a team whose standards have regressed - most notably since that uplifting campaign in South Africa two winters ago, when four players aged 22 or less played key roles in a magnificent series turnaround.
Pope, in fact, is now at the exact equivalent stage of his Test career as England's No. 3 in 2006, Ian Bell - the batter from whom he might as well have been cloned in a Loughborough biomech lab, and whose record in Ashes combat attracted similar scorn until his triumphant home campaign in 2013. Sure enough, Bell was one of the primary scapegoats in that original Adelaide meltdown, given that it was his crass final-day run-out that truly set their collapse in motion.
And yet, what England would have given for one of their junior batters to have fronted up even half as effectively as Bell managed on that 2006-07 tour. His first-innings 60 was one of four fifties in five Tests of that campaign - he had also top-scored when no-one else turned up at the first time of asking at the Gabba - while his overall record on three tours of Australia (encompassing two 5-0 whitewashes and an under-utilised role in the 2010-11 triumph) is actually uncannily similar to the man who needs now, somehow, to will himself to dig deeper than he's ever gone before.
Bell signed off at the end of the 2013-14 campaign with 895 runs at 37.29 in Australia, with nine fifties and one hundred. Root currently has 745 at 39.21 with eight fifties and no hundreds. One player is acknowledged as a fine contributor to an excellent England team, but is significantly less lauded than so many of his contemporaries; the other is arguably England's greatest batter of the 21st century, but a player whose most exhaustive efforts look destined to come up short Down Under, time and time again.
Such are the conundrums that await as the sharp end of this campaign approaches. Root's exhortations are all well and good, but he might as well be shouting down the well, such are the bottomless problems he's expecting his players to overcome. If teams with the batting talents of 2006-07 and 2013-14 were powerless to adjust their destiny, what hope the wide-eyed wannabes of 2021-22?

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket