Within a week the Ashes will be gone. A campaign which began with confidence and expectation higher than an elephant’s eye is in tatters.
England have lost the first two Tests of an increasingly acrimonious series by a combined total of 599 runs. They have three days to regroup and restore credibility to their mission to beat Australia for the fourth successive time.
No one outside the confines of the dressing room thinks they can win the third Test starting in Perth on Friday and the suspicion is that around the same number of people inside it hold that belief. England look broken, shadows of the men who won so thrillingly here three years ago and then ascended to the top of the world rankings.
Alastair Cook, their captain, offered a poetic reflection of their plight in the immediate aftermath of another thrashing. Barely an hour into the fifth day, England had subsided in a welter of meaningless attacking strokes, some stamped with the inscription too little and others hurtling to the boundary engraved with the words too late.
“Self-belief is certainly an issue you need to make sure you look after when you’ve lost heavily in two games,” said Cook. “If we don’t believe it, then no one else is going to believe it. That’s the simple deal. We’ve got to look deep into our souls, deep into our hearts, and turn it round.
“We can’t mope about giving it the ‘poor me’s. It’s whether we can drag a performance out of ourselves. We’ve got players who have scored a lot of runs, players who have taken a lot of wickets. We need to stand up and do that.”
Perth is almost the last place on earth that England would choose to try to save an Ashes series. Their record at the Waca is woeful, compromising one win in 1978 when Australia were fielding a virtual third XI, and eight defeats in 12 Tests. Cook contended that this should be ignored.
“You can say we haven’t won there for however many years,” he said. “It’s of total irrelevance to this team. We have to go there as this side in 2013 and deliver something very special, otherwise we’re not going to do what we’ve come to do.”
What may be more pertinent is England’s demise at Perth three years ago in a rubber they largely dominated. At the Waca they were brushed aside as usual, by 267 runs.
The damage was inflicted by Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris, who each took nine wickets. Johnson and Harris are still around, the former a moustachioed menace at his zenith, who is controlling the course of events. By the end of the match yesterday, Johnson had bowled 23 overs since his last wicket, which meant that England had merely donated their wickets to others.
For large tracts of the second Test, the tourists lacked gumption and spirit. Their apprehension against Johnson, bowling at 95mph compounded by a complex trajectory, was as understandable as it was obvious. There was nowhere to run (though a few tried) and nowhere to hide (and a few tried that, too).
It is possible that Johnson’s effectiveness has been diminished by his long period without wickets in the second innings. He is a mercurial bowler who cannot turn it on to order. But there was no need for him to blast England out yesterday, they were quite capable of causing their own downfall. Perth is his stomping ground. He will relish the bounce and extra pace. England can expect the ball to be winging round their ears, on the back foot in every sense.
Their remaining batsmen yesterday had it in their heads, presumably as part of some team plan, that they should leave their stamp on the second Test by playing a few shots. Thus it was that Stuart Broad hooked the fourth ball of the day’s first over for six and in trying to reprise the stroke next ball was caught inside the boundary.
As a concept to save the match it was novel; as a method to keep Australia out in the field for as long as possible, with the next match so close, it was wretchedly misguided. It was redolent of muddled thinking and a tour that has not gone according to a well-honed plan from the start.
Matt Prior, the wicketkeeper, at last found some semblance of form in the free-spirited approach, and welcome though his 69 was they were meaningless, slogged runs. He, too, was caught in the deep on the leg-side, the 21st time an Englishman has fallen that way in the series. In that direction lies madness.
Since Cook stepped off the flight from Heathrow with a stiff back, forcing his withdrawal from the opening match, it has been one thing after another, big and small. The small things may have eaten away at England, the big things like the departure of Jonathan Trott with a stress-related illness have had an effect more dramatic than the squad would like to concede.
At the heart of all the analysis is the growing conviction that this side are simply not as good as once they were. The 3-0 defeat of Australia in the summer was a kind of last hurrah, rather than, as some of us hoped, a restatement of former authority.
“I think when you lose games of cricket people are always going to criticise you,” said Cook. “It happens in every sport when you lose. People start looking at the side. That’s a natural thing for people outside the dressing room to do. We can only concentrate on what’s happening in the dressing room and what we believe. We’ve got some very good players in the dressing room. Their record suggests they’re very good players.”
There is also the possibility that a team on the slide have lost their desire, at least when it gets tough out there. Australia are on England’s case almost permanently and England, themselves arch-sledgers, are feeling the heat. If inadvertently, they may be feeling that it is all too much. Cook did not dismiss the possibility that they were no longer hungry.
“It’s a good question,” he said. “Sometimes, when you haven’t been playing well, that’s one thing you start looking at – whether we do have that. I can only say, from speaking to the guys, and watching them – how much this is hurting – that we do.
“Only the guys will know that inside themselves. But I honestly believe we’ve got that. We’ve been outplayed, and haven’t played very well. You can’t get away from that. But the only way we can drag it out is by getting that hunger, that desperation back into our game.”
The Waca may not be the place to do it. Desperate indeed.