Match Analysis

England positives negated by latest bout of brittle batting

Mark Wood and Sam Billings stood out but tourists continue to be weighed down by their baggage

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
15-Jan-2022
If Chris Silverwood hadn't played his cliché at precisely the wrong moment, in the wake of England's pitiful surrender at Melbourne, this might well have been a day for focusing on the "positives" - namely, the extraction of seven Australian wickets for 99 runs across two innings and two distinct periods of the pink-ball life cycle, a performance that reinforced the very adequacy upon which England's fleeting pre-series hopes had been founded.
Unfortunately, in shipping their own innings in 47.4 overs - the sort of attrition-rate that would attract scorn in an ODI, let alone a Test match - England left themselves no option but to double down once more on their most deep-seated failings. Not since 1958-59 has an England team travelled to Australia and failed to make 300 in at least one innings. With their tenth and final effort likely to get underway some time on Sunday, the book on that one is all but closed.
This was another day of thoroughly processional batting from England - their essential flimsiness put into stark relief by Scott Boland's heroic display as Australia's nightwatchman in the face of another gut-busting show from Mark Wood. Boland's 25 balls of stoic line-holding was longer than four of England's top six managed in friendlier conditions, and he has the chance to extend that further still.
With a lead of 152 overnight, and the pink Kookaburra already approaching the 20-over mark of its life cycle - the point at which all movement for England's bowlers appeared to vanish in the first innings - it's hard to envisage how England will not be made to rue, once again, the all-too-frequent lapses that have exacerbated Australia's dominance of this campaign.
"Australia have been brilliant with the ball, there's no doubt about that," Sam Billings said at the close. "But the most disappointing thing was, whenever we wrestled back a bit of momentum, we lost a wicket at crucial times. It was a real eclectic mix of dismissals as well. It wasn't just a set way of getting out."
Despite being granted the most favourable batting conditions so far, no England batter made more than Chris Woakes' 36, and he only lasted that long thanks to two dropped slip catches off Boland, as if karma was decreeing that his then-Test bowling average of 8.64 was already quite sufficiently ridiculous, thanks very much. (It's been stretched back out to 10.26 now - which means he isn't even topping Australia's averages anymore.)
That glimmer of Australian sloppiness even extended to their appealing. Rory Burns and Dawid Malan both survived non-reviewed caught-behinds early in their stays - though had Burns' reprieve been much earlier it would have been pre-natal. He hadn't even had a chance to capitalise on his good fortune from Mitchell Starc's sixth ball of England's innings, when Zak Crawley called him through for a sharp but feasible single, and off he trooped for his eighth duck in 22 innings. At least the refrain from the commentators was less focused on his idiosyncratic technique this time, and more on his failure to fling himself headlong for the crease.
So much has been made of England's exhaustive preparation for this series, but just as they went into the Brisbane Test with a bowling attack that had never before taken the field together (and Stuart Broad's deliverance of David Warner's second Ashes pair in consecutive series was another tart rejoinder to that particular call), so too were Crawley and Burns opening together for the very first time - little wonder they lacked the sort of telepathic understanding that you'd expect from a more seasoned alliance.
Rather than exhaustive, Ben Stokes just looked exhausted after wincing his way through 75 rib-bruising overs in the field. A Test tour of the Caribbean is looming in two months' time - a venue where, for all the disparagement that West Indies cricket tends to receive these days, England have won just one series since 1968. It doesn't require hindsight to point out that picking an injured player for such a long-dead rubber (Broad's exhortation to "win the battle in front of you" notwithstanding) isn't exactly the smartest way to get such a crucial performer back into the groove.
Besides, it's too late to expect any remarkable twist to this particular narrative. England are bound to be goaded by memories of Headingley 2019 come the fourth innings, but that performance stands out - like its 1981 predecessor - precisely because of its once-in-a-generation status. So long as England consider even a half-fit Stokes better than no Stokes at all, they will be inviting precisely the sort of decades-long hangover that Ian Botham's heroics caused in the 1980s and 1990s, while providing a performative smokescreen. Tom Harrison, the ECB chief executive, has been doing the rounds in this Test, dressing up an abject battering as a "brilliant opportunity" for a reboot.
Joe Root hasn't had the same physical pain to deal with as Stokes (not lately at least…), but he too has dug about as deep as he can manage on this trip. Inevitably, Root was England's most composed performer but - as has become equally inevitable the longer this series has gone on - he failed to push on from the promise of his beginnings. The dream of that maiden hundred in Australia has waned to the mere hope that he can get back to reaching fifty on a once-a-match basis. Instead, after enduring another onslaught that left the broadcaster's heatmap resembling an advert for Rennies - targeted directly at his pit of his stomach - he played too deep to the pad-thumper from Cummins, and trooped off for his series average of 34.
Only two England players, in fact, could genuinely be said to be enjoying themselves. One was the effervescent Wood, who still can't quite persuade his average to match his endeavours, but whose reversion to a more pitch-battering length at least put him out in front as England's leading wicket-taker. And the other, as if to prove that preparation is folly and living in the moment is the only way to go, was the debutant Billings, whose glee at being involved was palpable.
"Did it look like I was having fun? I loved it," Billings said, having driven 500 miles and nine hours to link up with the squad instead of fly home to the UK ahead of next week's white-ball tour. "It's far better than being sat on the sofa, waiting to board the plane."
Billings is a curious type of Test debutant - a veteran of England tour parties, if not of actual matches, having featured in barely a quarter of the white-ball games that have taken place since his first cap in 2015, and a man whose arrival has added "a bit of experience around the group", as he put it.
He's clearly not wrong, and his exuberance behind the stumps has been a clear injection of energy in the field, certainly compared to Jos Buttler's troublingly catatonic displays in the first four games.
But you have to wonder how Dan Lawrence, for example, must feel at being leapfrogged in this manner - not least given how excited the ECB (and Mo Bobat, the influential performance director, in particular), had been about his displays on the Lions tour two years ago.
That trip, featuring a maiden England Lions victory over Australia A at Melbourne, was trumpeted at the time as proof of England's long-term Ashes vision. Now, the stand-out batting star of that campaign can't even get a gig in the fifth Test of a long-lost tour, while the key bowler, Ollie Robinson, gets thrown under the bus for his lack of fitness. No, it's only fair to reserve judgement on the positives for now, and wait for the inevitable inquests.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket