Self-dooming England get an Ashes sniff of what they could have won
Ten minutes before tea on Friday evening the sky above Adelaide had retreated behind a potent-looking white veil as Jimmy Anderson came on to bowl the 139th over of Australia’s innings. Even from the other side of the world it looked like vicious, sweaty work, in a city where the heat clings to you like a woollen three piece suit.
Australia were cruising at 383 for five, sucking time and possibilities out of the game, the day, the series. Steve Smith and Alex Carey had put on 89. Anderson narrowed his eyes, grimaced and ran in to bowl his 26th over, legs pounding the turf like legs that will still pound the turf when you really, and very strongly, order them to do it.
His first ball was clocked at 77.6mph. Smith defended with almost satirical caution, a man hunting for traps. The second was on leg stump and flicked for one with a yelp. The third was also flicked away by Carey as Anderson chuntered to himself. The ball had swung in to the left-hander. Here was a faint flicker of life.
Anderson looked eager now, an idea stirring, something to kill the time. The fourth and fifth balls were delivered on a perfect line outside off stump, seam angled at the stumps in search of the in-nipper: inviting a fatal leave but drawing a late counter-block from Smith, who read the plan, and perhaps even saw the stitching.
Ball six was the same ball, just marginally straighter. This time it kept low, hitting the left pad – Smith stands square, legs together – with a soft, slightly mocking thunk. Anderson went backward-skipping down the wicket, hands Charlestoning.
The appeal was a thin “Aeeeee” that drew an instant raised finger. Smith reviewed it, fruitlessly, then walked off in a state of misery, a man deceived by low bounce, and by a trick he saw and covered all the way. As Mike Tyson so famously said: everyone has a plan until they get hit below the knee-roll by a 78mph in-skidder.
And with that, one and a half defeats into this pre-doomed England Ashes series, Anderson had his first wicket of the tour. On the stroke of tea he had his second, drawing Carey into a lame plink to cover with another ball that gripped a little.
As the players walked off Anderson had figures of 26.4-10-51-2, decent for a man who hadn’t played cricket since September; and who was, although this seemed later to be retracted, not fit to play in Brisbane.
This was not, repeat not, a flicker of Ashes hope. Detailed analysis shows Australia have been better in three key areas so far: batting, bowling and fielding. Otherwise things have been pretty even. It was at best a flicker of a false dawn. But there was something else here too, a sniff of a more competent timeline; of the series, as they used to say on Bullseye, that you could have had.
These Ashes feel doomed already after a day in which England were reduced to 17 for two, 456 behind. And yet, with all due respect to Australia’s good batting and excellent seam bowling, this has been a case of self-dooming. And self-dooming on two fronts, most obviously the muddled internal management of Chris Silverwood and Joe Root.
This, for England, is the key “takeaway” from day two in Adelaide. In the past there has been a feeling of inevitability about England Ashes defeat. Test cricket is great like that. You get what you deserve. But here was a reminder that this isn’t a bad England team, that there is serious, generational talent here. And that England are being asked to play Test cricket while wearing leg-weights and a lead-lined saddle.
With the bowling this has come from within. England have dropped seven catches in this Test. How’s the prep, the planning, the angles? Are they first rate? But the bowling has been OK otherwise. Everyone has looked good at times, except for Jack Leach who was fed to the dogs, unforgivably, by a captain who didn’t see it coming.
They have been let down more fundamentally by an over-thought selection plan, a rotation policy that in trying to seem very clever, has revealed only the depths of its own stupidity.
Chris Woakes and Ollie Robinson are essentially the nicer, less mean iteration of Anderson-Broad. Why did we play the own-brand version on a green pitch at the Gabba? Why not play the killers with a lead there to be snatched? How weak, how fearful to wait until you’re already losing before giving it the gun. How good might Broad and Anderson have been here, with a game already in their legs? Why unleash Stuart Broad on David Warner only once Warner has a leg up and a nice start, a textbook case study in how to dismantle your own strength?
As for the batting, well, here we have Part Two in the anatomy of an Ashes self-dooming. Rory Burns fenced at a good one late in the day. Haseeb Hameed played a weird shot. The problem here is there are very few alternatives. The ECB has gifted us a system that disdains red ball cricket in the chase for a quick buck; and which awards itself vast executive bonuses for this act of vandalism.
England still have Root and Ben Stokes to come, and the talent to stage a fightback even now. But they will be doing so self-hobbled; not to mention teased by, as they were by those glimpses of the Anderson before tea, the series they might have had.