Perhaps it is cruel to grade the status of 5-0 Ashes defeats. The level of humiliation and capitulation seems self-evident in the scoreline.
Contemporary mores being what they are, unfortunately, the dreadful fate awaiting England in Sydney demands some sort of ranking. So here goes. This will be the worst of the three occasions on which they have lost all five matches.
The state into which matters have fallen was enshrined in a single incident on the second day of the Fifth Test. In late afternoon, Jimmy Anderson, out on his feet, at least one of which was probably on the plane home, was edged by Chris Rogers through the slip cordon.
Two fielders gave chase. Ian Bell stopped the ball just before the rope, Scott Borthwick threw it back to the wicketkeeper, Jonny Bairstow, who gathered it and hurled it to the non-striker’s end where it hurled past the stumps to the boundary.
Instead of being out to the errant shot, as he might have been had the ball carried to hand, Rogers had scored seven. There was the difference between a winning team and a losing team. Anderson smiled ruefully. It was either that or thump Bairstow and call for a stiff one.
Australia finished on 140 for 4, 311 ahead . England’s batting crumbled yet again in the morning against some high-calibre bowling, the one bereft of optimism, the other full of it. The atrocious shots played were not the actions of men who did not care but of men who cared a great deal and could do nothing about repelling an all-consuming opponent.
Batsmen who had played significant roles in previous winning Ashes campaigns – ah, how lovely the world must have seemed then – came and went with barely a flicker of resistance. Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen arrived in this series as the power houses of their team’s batting and will end it as grandees who have made and lost a fortune.
With one innings left they had between them made 746 runs in this series, 22 fewer than Cook made himself on the tour three years ago and less than half their combined total in that memorable endeavour. They have had tumultuous Ashes career of a like never seen before.
Pietersen and Bell both played in all five matches of the epic 2005 campaign which England won 2-1, all three were part of the much-anticipated 2006-07 return rubber which ended in another Pommie disaster, five increasingly abject defeats, and then featured again in all the victories of varying accomplishment in 2009, 2010-11 and 2013.
And now this. England lost 5-0 for the first time on their 1920-21 tour. That team was still deeply affected by the fact that the bloom of the nation’s youth had been cut down in the First World War. They were led by the 38-year-old Johnny Douglas and by the time of the Fifth Test that was also nearly the side’s average age. That was reason aplenty for losing to Warwick Armstrong’s well-drilled team (the captain was 41 but his team’s average age was a mere 33).
In 2006-07 it all went badly wrong under a temporary captain, Andrew Flintoff, whose selection as leader, it swiftly became apparent, was plainly misguided. Selection issues which had been unresolved at home plagued the team, but equally they were playing opponents who contained some of the best cricketers to have played the game.
From that defeat lessons were to be learned so that it would never be repeated. A committee of inquiry, known as the Schofield Report, was set up to ensure it. That has come to look nothing more than hogwash this winter.
Australia are a competent team, no more, with a disciplined bowling attack who have stuck to well-appointed strategies. Yet their first five wickets in the series have averaged 104, which bespeaks missed opportunities by England.
Doom was in the air yesterday. Cook was out to the second ball, playing no shot to a straight ball from Ryan Harris which would have flattened off stump. It was the shot, however he might seek to excuse it, of a man whose mind is confused and has nothing more to give.
Five in the firing line: players whose futures must be under consideration
Five in the firing line: players whose futures must be under consideration
The England player of the year, a team man non pareil. His form has reached such depths that he must have felt it a mercy to be dropped for the fourth Test. Of course, he is young enough at 31 to come back but others must be given the chance to fail – even Jonny Bairstow, who it is difficult to envisage as a long-term successor and probably should not have been a short-term one. At the very least Prior has to return to Sussex and offer compelling evidence that both batting and wicketkeeping are restored. He should be wished well but it has been a salutary few months.
In his case the grass is definitely greener on his side of the fence. He has 213 Test wickets in England at 27.34, 127 away at 36.10 and come Sri Lanka in June, after a good rest and with a high-seamed Duke ball, he will make the ball talk again. But whether preparing pitches for his particular brand of mastery is best for the long term is doubtful. It has been a hard few months for him since his apotheosis at Trent Bridge last July and you wonder if he will ever be quite the same again – wherever he is bowling.
As the most celebrated and contentious of all recent England cricketers, he has been at pains to point out his desire to do well for the side. He has not always backed that up with convincing demonstrations, though he was the top-scorer in Melbourne and understandably at a loss to judge what to do for the best. Cook and England went out of their way to reintegrate him after his spat over the texts about Andrew Strauss in 2012, which led to his brief exclusion from the team. For all his protests, it is possible to muse on whether his heart is truly in it or if he is quite as capable of supplying the spectacular.
At 31 he ought still to have five grand years ahead of him. He also ought to have entered the realms of greatness now but despite a short flirtation last summer he remains on the outside looking in. For all that he loves playing cricket – nobody is so prepared to play so much – it is too much that is undermining him now. His shot to be out in Melbourne was eerily reminiscent of previous sloppy dismissals, barely credible from such a gifted player. It is difficult to think of an England team without him. So if Cook will not do it, Bell must bat at No 3 for the foreseeable. Who knows, the captaincy might also await but the dividing line between that and the sack is not as great as it seems.
There remains enormous goodwill for Cook. This cataclysmic reversal has harmed him as a batsman and a captain but he has also been traduced by people who should know better.
His captaincy lacks the instinctive touch and tactical nous but the regard in which he is held in the dressing room, partly for his batting feats, is no small thing.
In some ways, his apprentice captaincy embodies the shortcomings of the central contract system. He had never led before, learning the nuances of the job in county cricket.
The steadfast refusal to countenance the idea of his dropping down the order to relieve some of the pressure (Michael Atherton and Andrew Strauss didn’t do it, Michael Vaughan did) may be unsustainable, however.
There is a strong case for Cook missing the one-day series which follows this. But he has already been appointed as captain for it, a role it is intended he will fill in the World Cup next year, and to withdraw him now would invite further tumult.
He will doubtless open the one-day batting with Bell, a man who rarely misses a game and looks similarly spent. He tootled around yesterday without looking to have much of a clue – and this one of the world’s most fluent stylists – and was eventually squared up by one from Peter Siddle.
That, however, was after Pieteresen had essayed a drive with bat away from body which flew to slip. At 23 for 5 there was no way back for England. Ben Stokes burnished his growing reputation a little more with a gritty 47 which contained some counter-attacking strokes, Gary Ballance showed some phlegm. There was some belligerence towards the end which saved the follow-on. Small mercies.
Australia went along at almost five an over, a rate which the loss of four wickets did nothing to negate. It has gone from bad to worse.