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Analysis

England's Ashes hopes turn to dust in a matter of a few hours

What an extraordinary, abject spectacle this series is turning out to be

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
18-Dec-2021
At 5.10pm local time, Joe Root and Dawid Malan strode back out to the middle of the Adelaide Oval with a three-hour century stand in the bank, a Test match (theoretically) in the balance and an Ashes campaign to be rescued, right there and then.
Within a further three hours, the Ashes had turned to dust, and James Anderson's and Stuart Broad's emotional reunion under the floodlights had instead become a rabbit-hunt in the headlights.
Despite the delicious prospect of a quick kill and the enforcing of the follow-on almost on the stroke of sunset, Australia's seamers instead put their search for wickets on hold to indulge in a spell of bunny-bashing. When you've claimed four prime wickets for 19 runs in some of the most pristine batting conditions of the series, a team is entitled to trade 16 tail-end runs (England's joint-third-highest stand of the innings) for the chance to leave a lasting impression on their opponent's battered carcass.
A diet of bouncers, right into the ribs and on one occasion, Broad's jaw, was then followed by the inevitable sight of David Warner and Marcus Harris sprinting off the pitch after England's tenth-wicket tenderising had finally come to an end. Where's the need to go again when you are so far ahead of the game?
And as night follows day, not long after 9.30pm, Australia's openers had posted their highest first-wicket Ashes partnership in four years and 15 innings, at which point England abandoned the zip-around-in-the-gloom policy that had dictated their selection for this match, and turned instead to their Test-match everyman, Root - for whom it is not enough simply to carry the entire team's batting all year. All of a sudden he is considered the only spinner worth his salt in the entire country.
By 9.45pm, however, Root had shamefully failed to emulate his previous pink-ball bowling figures of 5 for 8, and England had been reduced to bowling for run-outs, to set the seal on a day of rock-bottom ignominy.
Is it possible that we are in the midst of witnessing England's worst-ever Ashes challenge? With two days to come, two more sessions of Aussie run-harvesting, and two more trials by twilight up the sleeve for Mitchell Starc and Co., it's eminently plausible. What an extraordinary, abject spectacle this series is turning out to be.
Of course there's mitigation, there always is. The build-up to this particular series has been indescribably tough - the lab-rat lifestyle of cricket in Covid times could hardly be less conducive to a cheery team environment. Four years ago, the squad was at least able to pop down to a local dive and indulge in a spot of beer-fuelled headbutting to loosen a few intra-squad tensions.
But the cricket itself… even allowing for the rain that wrecked the series build-up, and six years of white-ball priorities that wrecked the County Championship schedule, and the glut of fast-bowling injuries that wrecked England's best-laid plans, and a post-pandemic financial imperative that has sucked the joy from the act of playing sport for a living … there's still no excuse for the spineless surrender that England served up in an afternoon session, a passage of play that could not have been more critical to the team's ambitions in the series they claim to hold most dear.
And it all began, dare one say it, with England's golden child himself. Criticising Root for a lack of application in this year of all years is rather like accusing the Pope of fallibility (no, not Ollie Pope … we'll come to him later too). And yet, as Root himself telegraphed as he threw back his head and bent his bat over his brain in self-admonishment after nibbling an edge from the lanky seam of Cameron Green, he knew all too well that he'd given it away once again. He had reached his seventh fifty in his last seven Tests in Australia, and his eighth in 11 all told, but it needed to be converted to that elusive hundred - instead that missing statistic looks set to condemn him to the tenth defeat of his career Down Under, and his sixth out of seven as captain.
"It's pretty frustrating and disappointing to get back within touching distance of them," Malan, England's top scorer with 80, said afterwards. "We can talk about the guys that failed, but ultimately one of Rooty or myself should have gone on and got a big hundred there. We've been found short as a batting unit, compared to the Australian unit, and that's something we need to do better from this next innings onwards."
Most worryingly for England's hopes of staging a fightback, however - at Melbourne, Sydney or Hobart, let alone in the next two days - the ball that derailed their innings wasn't even the one that prised Root from the crease. Rather, it was the one that Green served up four balls earlier, a bona fide snorter that hit the seam and climbed past the edge, as a bowler of Green's height is wont to achieve on occasions. His next ball, at the start of a new over, also climbed dramatically, and suddenly Root was playing a different game, rushing his hands to meet the anticipated point of impact rather than playing each on its own merits, under the eyes, down through the cordon, as he had done with such sangfroid all morning long.
What happened next was a credit to Green's ability to make things happen, of course, and further proof that Australia have found themselves a truly tantalising talent, but tall bowlers extracting bounce is hardly a mystery weapon in Australian conditions - that tactic, over and above outright speed, was the making (and the subsequent breaking) of England's victorious tour in 2010-11, as well as their last most forgettable visit three years later.
But Root needed to know that the moment would pass, that hanging tough through a torrid passage of play was a fair trade-off for the serenity that beckoned on the other side of Green's spell - he's spent long enough watching David Warner and Marnus Labuschagne live on their wits to know that. Instead Root jabbed with hard hands at a ball he had no reason to engage with, and as he dragged his year's tally of 1606 runs back to the pavilion, his replacement at the crease was pure wide-eyed panic.
Suddenly, there were demons everywhere. Malan had been intermittently skittish during his 138-run stand with Root, including a brace of inside-edged drives off the seamers and more than a few wild cuts against Nathan Lyon's spin. But at least his captain's controlled presence at the other end had emboldened him to go for his strokes, and make his own decisions about the risk-reward they entailed.
Now, suddenly, everything was on his shoulders. With Ben Stokes devoutly runless for his first 24 deliveries, priming himself for his Headingley-lite finale, Malan too was crammed back into his shell. His second ball of this new partnership was a low edge to slip, and as Lyon began to hound his technique from round the wicket, his only two scoring shots for three overs were another snick past the slips and a madcap single to cover … which brought him back into the firing line of the returning Mitchell Starc
"Out here, you have to have the intent to score, to put the pressure back on the bowlers," Malan reflected afterwards. "It's also identifying certain periods of the game where the Aussies are going to attack you and trying to counter that. Looking back, I probably should have left that ball and hopefully could have still been batting but that's a learning curve for myself."
But Malan didn't leave that ball - a not-so-juicy half-tracker that was too tight for the cut shot that he had played so effectively one ball earlier. And nor did Pope (the fallible version) learn from a reprieve at short leg off Lyon, as he cantered down the track two balls later in a desperate bid to smother the spin before it engulfed him, and picked out the same fielder.
It was his second extraction by Lyon in as many innings, and having been similarly tormented by R Ashwin last winter, Pope's average against offspin has now plummeted to 15.57, compared to a serviceable 36.20 against the quicks. It's a blindspot that England's most exciting Test prospect seems no closer to resolving, as his career progression remains in stasis, almost two years on from his breakthrough hundred in Port Elizabeth
Chris Woakes at least showed proactivity until he too was spooked by the one that didn't quite behave - another big turner from Lyon inducing a flat-footed poke two balls later - which is more than can be said for the haunted Jos Buttler, whose first-day drops meant that he began his innings in serious arrears - and at no stage did he ever look like clearing his debt.
Another hard-handed jab sent Buttler on his way for a 15-ball duck, which is the fourth time he has batted so long for no runs - more than any other Test cricketer since 1991. Far from being liberated by his proven white-ball derring-do, Buttler seems paralysed by the expanse of Test cricket's possibilities, like a stoned astrology student contemplating the limitless reach of the stars in the night sky.
At least, on that note, it was another pretty sunset for England to contemplate as they sat on the balcony and watched their old stagers get duffed up. The optics of England's actual cricket, however, are looking pretty hideous.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket