In both Brisbane and Adelaide England have managed to tantalise. They have not been uniformly hopeless. They clung on at the Gabba for three days; indeed there were moments there when they could have taken control of that game. Conversely in Adelaide, having played ineptly for two and a half days, they bowled Australia out for 138 in their second innings and so conjured up the possibility of an historic victory. On the fourth day they rose again and allowed their fans to dream. On the fifth grim reality returned. All out for 233 defeated by 120 runs.
Nonetheless there have been moments when the soft underbelly of their opponents has been visible. This is not a vintage Australian side. Darren Lehmann is not a backward looking bloke, which is just as well. If he was he would surely look at some of his batsmen and then wonder how it was that he only played 27 Tests for Australia and Stuart Law played just one. How Steve Smith would love a Lehmann and a Law in his middle order; so would Joe Root for that matter.
But the capacity to tantalise butters no parsnips. Look at the score; England head to Perth 2-0 down despite their little renaissance towards the end of the match in Adelaide. Australia may have recovered from 2-0 down under Don Bradman in the summer of 1936-7, but there are no more recent precedents to cheer Joe Root and his fellow travellers. The analysts will have to be at their most inventive to bring some good cheer to their table.
At the start of the second Test there was a hint of desperation in the England camp peculiarly allied with a timidity among their bowlers. There have been worse insertions by an England captain in Ashes history: 2002 and 1982 immediately spring to mind and the history books – and John Woodcock, one of the few witnesses left – acknowledge that putting Australia in at Brisbane in 1954 did not work out so well. But the simple fact that Root opted to verge from the orthodox tells of his uncertainty that his bowlers would be able to take 20 wickets cheaply enough. After the second innings in Brisbane he lacked confidence in them. So he gambled. He was not convinced that orthodoxy would work.
Moreover his bowlers, however experienced, seemed to feel the pressure on that first morning. They did not bowl dreadfully in the opening overs of the match but they did bowl cagily; there were wary of bowling too full and there was not much zip – in stark contrast to their efforts in the second innings, albeit in the devious dark. A captain who is conscious of the limitations of his attack is more prone to try to pluck rabbits out of his hat; it is a ploy that seldom works.
England’s pace bowlers may be as skillful as their counterparts but they are slower. The misgivings about England’s attack are most easily identified when contrasting Nathan Lyon and Moeen Ali. Admittedly Moeen has been handicapped by injuries to his side and his spinning finger but there has been a gulf between this pair. Lyon is fizzing the ball down and, critically, it is dipping at the end of its flight path. He is tormenting England’s left-handers, including the veteran Alastair Cook, who had few problems with pacemen here but looked like a novice against the finger spinner.
Ten of Lyon’s 11 victims in the series bat left-handed (the next generation surely requires ambidextrous batsmen to combat quality off-spinners or left-armers). It may be that we all underestimated him before the series and therefore did not consider the best way to attack him. There was not much talk before the Ashes tour party was announced about the need for right-handed batsmen. Now we bemoan the fact that the one spare batsman, Gary Ballance, is also left-handed. Lyon has bowled extremely well and quickly; he has also made the ball turn, all of which makes it very difficult for left-handers to attack him. This explains why the push to promote Jonny Bairstow above Moeen has nothing to do with psychology and everything to do with strategy.
Of the left-handers Moeen may be more inclined to attack Lyon than the others but he has also been dismissed by him four times out of four. Yet the blunt and difficult truth is that England will have to attack him successfully to get back in the series and they need their right-handers at the crease for much longer if that’s going to happen. It should be more difficult for Lyon to prevail at the Waca where the ball seldom turns – at least it never used to. One suspects in his last Test there John Lewis, the curator, would like to finish with a fast, bouncy pitch that has been the USP of one of cricket’s iconic grounds. However there are doubts whether this is still possible. In recent times the Waca has been more of a haven for batsmen than fast bowlers.
There are, at least, a couple of plusses for England post Adelaide. They discovered that Craig Overton has potential. For the moment he may be a callow Test cricketer, but he clearly has the stomach for the fight. This was evident as much from his batting in the first innings – remember how he had endured three ducks in Australia before taking guard in his first Test match – and his fielding, in particular the way he clung on to a tricky skier down at long leg. He did not bowl too badly either, which made Root’s preference for Moeen on the fourth morning all the more puzzling. Overton has surely leapt above Jake Ball in the pecking order. It was also encouraging to see Chris Woakes bounding up to the crease in the second innings when it all started to click again. And the team is still trying its best, which was not always our impression four years ago. Unfortunately that may not be enough.
Over the next few days there will be much talk of Durham’s Mark Wood, who is earmarked to play in the two-day match in Perth that begins on Saturday against a raw Cricket Australia XI. He has not bowled at 90mph for a long time; he has barely bowled with a red ball in the last six months. Sadly this is likely to be yet another example of desperate straw-clutching, an habitual exercise for Englishmen on the majority of Ashes tours.