England’s capacity for self-destruction should never be underestimated. With the Fourth Test at their mercy yesterday their batsmen continued their indubitably triumphant campaign to mess up the bowlers’ lives.
It is among the wonders of the modern game that so many apparently talented players should have conspired to play so carelessly for so long and survived. The tourists handed back the initiative to Australia on the third day here and squandered an excellent opportunity to bat them out of the contest and thus definitely avoid the ignominy of a 5-0 series defeat.
Twice in their innings they shed, nay donated, wickets in clutches, three of the top-order for one run in six balls and then their last five for six runs in 40 balls. Instead of having a commanding lead England had a slender one; instead of judiciously taking control of the match they lamentably surrendered it.
ASHES PODCAST: Stephen Brenkley and Tom Collomosse discuss the third day of the Fourth Test. Listen below…
Only Kevin Pietersen, top-scorer in the first innings, displayed the necessary application, something he has not always managed in this series. The rest, almost to a man, were culpably neglectful.
Matters had been progressing smoothly enough early in the piece, although the fall of Alastair Cook for his third fifty of the series was cause for concern. He had batted with a great deal of gusto, reaching 51 from 64 balls, but when he was outsmarted by Mitchell Johnson’s swing the scoring all but stopped.
With the innings moribund, three wickets fell for one run in six balls which altered the complexion of the match but perfectly reflected the nature of the series. England lacked composure and sense. They were naive and as spineless as they had been throughout.
Michael Carberry, who had been worryingly cautious in assembling 12 runs from 80 balls, had run out of ways to score. Bowling from round the wicket has shown up limitations in his method and Peter Siddle trapped him in front. He has been endlessly patient but it has been a hard arena in which to learn the rudiments of Test opening. At 33 he has not been quite up to it.
In the next over, Joe Root, failing utterly to grasp what was needed but aware that he had to be seen to be positive, dashed for a single after pushing a ball to mid-off. Johnson’s direct hit ran him out by a foot.
The crassness was not done yet. Ian Bell’s first ball, bowled by Nathan Lyon, drifted away from him and for reasons known only to himself he could not resist driving at it. The contact was never sufficient and he was caught tamely at mid-off – by that man Johnson again.
At Adelaide a few weeks ago, Bell made an authoritative 72 not out while others around him went to their doom. It seemed a long time ago, as did his three wonderful hundreds of the summer.
Briefly, Pietersen and Ben Stokes launched a revival. But just as everyone was beginning to think he is one of the discoveries of the age, Stokes played a naive drive against Lyon and was caught at deep mid-off.
Jonny Bairstow bristled awhile, determined that he was not going to perish wondering. For the second time in the match he launched his innings with a six, though his straight drive was more controlled than his first-innings hook. But his primitive, flat-footed drive at Johnson was the catalyst for the final collapse.
Johnson has usually been the tail’s nemesis in this series but he shared the duty with Lyon, who finished with five wickets in an innings for the fourth time. He also became the first Australian off-spinner since Bruce Yardley 30 years ago to reach 100 wickets in Test matches.
England were left with plenty to ponder. The inquest into this series, to be undertaken by new management, will reveal flaws in selection, preparation and approach. Players who have had auspicious careers have performed miserably.
The batsmen collectively have been abject, subjugated by a splendid opposition bowling attack and without the diligence or craft to repel it. The bowlers, much more proficient, have allowed Australia off the hook too often and it was perhaps notable that in this Test, when they kept them on it, they had the help of a fourth seamer in Stokes.
But there are questions to be asked about who was brought and why and what they were meant to be doing when they got here. England looked for the first time yesterday like a team that had forgotten how to win.
It was a fate that had befallen Australia in the summer and now the roles have been switched. There will rightly be debate about Cook’s captaincy in the future but there are no obvious candidates to replace him.
The batting order is in urgent need of invigoration and in the absence of compelling candidates – so much for systems – the order needs reconfiguring. It may be tempting to do nothing but when you have surrendered the Ashes with such alacrity that cannot be an option.