They thought they were the special, chosen team. They were not. They thought numerous immutable laws of time and tide did not necessarily apply to them. They did.
Therein lies the tale of Australia in this Ashes series; a contest they were expected to win and probably should have won, but failed to do so for no other reason so much as the fact they did not grasp the need to respect the prevailing conditions and the nature of their opposition until it was too late. It wasn't so much that they weren't good enough - more that they were far too late in recognising what "good" actually looked like in England.
On the final day of the series, most of Australia's bowling came in the form of medium-fast seam-up and swing by Peter Siddle and Mitchell Marsh, both men and method thought largely surplus to requirements at the start. In this final match, most of Australia's runs were gained by graft rather than gallop, an approach favoured by far too few of the batsmen at earlier, more critical junctures.
It is useful to remember the mood in which the whole escapade kicked off. In Melbourne, two days after a thumping victory over New Zealand in the World Cup final, the selection chairman Rod Marsh named his squad. Consecutive tours of the West Indies and England were to be tackled by the same 17 players, amid much expectation that England would not dare to prepare green pitches, given the show of strength put on by the Australian pacemen in the World Cup and many other series besides. No-one batted an eyelid about it.
The doughty Ryan Harris was chosen for England in the expectation that he would shrug off chronic knee problems yet again. Shane Watson and Brad Haddin were picked on what they had done in previous Ashes tours as opposed to the past 15 months. Without a first-class match since December, Clarke was touring as captain in the expectation that he would find the thread of his batting in the Caribbean and then follow it to a final prolific tour of England. Fawad Ahmed spoke after Marsh, and expected to get at least one game as the second spinner.
Against a West Indies team distracted by Shivnarine Chanderpaul's messy exit before the series and the Caribbean Premier League looming after it, Australia sprinted to what looked like an enormous victory. Yet the batting line-up showed signs of fragility even then, as a pair of lone hands by Adam Voges and Steven Smith covered up other failings. In Jamaica, Jerome Taylor gave a loose approximation of what might be expected from England's seamers, and found only Smith seemingly able to cope. The bowlers lacked consistency but were not made to pay for it by a horrendously weak West Indian top six.
Flying direct to England from Jamaica, Australian confidence was plain to see. It came through in the public words offered by Smith, Haddin, Watson, Mitchell Starc and even Nathan Lyon, the brio supported by a raft of predictions for a comfortable Australian victory. Even the fact that Australia looked a team unbalanced by age was laughed off, as Clarke referred jovially to the members of "Dad's Army" in the traditional reception at the High Commission. Spirits were high.
But slowly, piece by piece, the walls began to crack. First of all Harris' knee finally gave way, so compromised in its effectiveness that he broke his right leg trying to bowl on it. Plan A had called for Harris to play from the start of the series, and now he was gone. But instead of reverting to Siddle, the younger attack used in the West Indies was preferred for Cardiff. Immediately, Clarke found himself struggling to contain the scoreboard against a more proactively styled England. It was to be a battle almost as consuming as Clarke's own fight for runs.
Equally, the batsmen were shown up in Wales by conditions and bowling that challenged their egos and techniques - though by no means as much as Birmingham and Nottingham were to do. There was a dismissive air about it all, as though aggression would win out in any event. David Warner was widely castigated for looking subdued in this Test, when in truth he was actually trying to find a way to play. Others were guilty of not even attempting to adjust, much like David Duval's quip before the infamous 1999 British Open at Carnoustie that his only change for links golf would be to "hit the ball a little lower".
The coach Darren Lehmann called Cardiff a "minor hiccup", and events at Lord's seemed to back up his theory. It was a result celebrated with some gusto, not only by the team but also an extensive retinue of Cricket Australia staff, management, board members and sponsors who made the trip. Yet the vast victory secured off the back of runs from Chris Rogers and Smith took place on the most familiar pitch of the series, and worked ultimately to clarify what England needed to do to win. At the same time it cemented Australian assumptions. Dangerously so.
Edgbaston's grassy pitch messed with Australian expectations in the middle, while the non-recall of Haddin after personal leave to be with his daughter scrambled minds in the dressing room. For just about the first time in his tenure, Lehmann and his senior players were at odds over an issue, and both parties were discomforted by it. How much this contributed to the defeat is debatable, but it was a disorienting experience for many. The hope that Haddin would simply come good as he always had in Ashes series was the underlying contributor to the issue, for a problem area was ignored until too late.
Trent Bridge brought still more grass and enormous pressure on the team. They gave one self-consciously "up and about" performance at a fielding session but as Ricky Ponting has observed, smiles and laughs can convey nervousness just as readily as bitten nails and cold sweats. Knowing the series and possibly their jobs were on the line, the selectors blinked by dropping Mitchell Marsh and including Shaun, while also declining to choose Siddle in conditions crying out for him. An extra batsman made sense in some ways, but Shaun Marsh's lack of English expertise was to be more cruelly exposed than most, while the bowlers' collective was terminally unbalanced by having neither allrounder nor stock bowler.
Beaten out of sight and having witnessed the least becoming captaincy resignation since that of Kim Hughes more than 30 years before, the chastened tour party retired to Northampton while Clarke convalesced in London. It seemed in the aftermath of such a humiliating Ashes loss a few lessons had actually been learned. The players and selectors engaged in a frank and private exchange on the Wantage Road outfield, and the new leadership duo of Smith and Warner spent much time in conversation with Rod Marsh and Lehmann as the tour match petered out.
What emerged at The Oval was a more humble team, both in composition and application. Helped by the less febrile atmosphere of a dead Test, they performed in the kind of manner they had always been capable of, if only they had realised it was necessary. Warner and Smith took after Rogers, who as Australia's Man of the Series had shown the way throughout without always being followed. Mitchell Marsh took after Siddle, and it was the spurned pair that ended the match as Australia's best.
As with so much else on this tour, things had not gone according to plan. A new one is in the making.