Curiouser and curiouser. Australia’s batsmen disappeared down the rabbit hole into a pool of tears, and Alastair Cook is in Wonderland. This is Ashes cricket scripted by Lewis Carroll rather than Neville Cardus.
There may have been more surreal days at Lord’s since it was established in 1814, but it is difficult to define the dates. Though boldness is perilous given England’s poor batting last evening, Michael Clarke’s side surely conceded the second Test with a performance that was a parody of professionalism.
Their failure to compile a competitive score, on an essentially good wicket in perfect conditions, was the result of a tragi-comic sequence of muddle-headed thinking, flawed technique, unforgivable impatience and sheer panic.
They remain as comfortable with modern technology as a great-grandmother from East Grinstead who has only just discovered the magic of multi-channel television. As far as they are concerned, DRS is a four-letter word. The review system highlights the primitive nature of their approach to performance and the weaknesses in their chain of command.
England have their response to uncertainty down to a fine art. Cook consults with wicketkeeper Matt Prior and the appropriate bowler. If there is unanimity of view, the third umpire is placed on the spot. If there is a scintilla of doubt, they take a deep breath and move on.
Australia, by contrast, approach the ritual with the caution of a drunken ingénue determined to squander the inheritance. Their decline from a position of strength just before lunch redefined one of the basic truths of international sport: it is no arena for those who refuse to learn from their mistakes. The errors which underpinned their narrow defeat at Trent Bridge were repeated with reckless abandon.
The fault lines in the relationship between Clarke and Shane Watson, glossed over in the build-up to this match, will have widened proportionately. The opener’s inability to control his ego led him to challenge his dismissal to a straight ball by Tim Bresnan, which he played across with habitual disdain for the potential penalties.
A batsman in such circumstances must think quickly, clearly and logically. He must compartmentalise his disappointment and alarm at being given out. He must calculate the collective consequences of a knee-jerk response. He cannot afford to be overwhelmed by the emotions of the moment, or be provoked by those with most to gain from his error.
That went well, then, Shane.
Several England players actually laughed at Watson’s folly in referring the decision to the third umpire, before applying themselves to ensure that the game accelerated away from Australia. They were not short of accomplices, because their opponents found ever more inventive ways to get out.
It was that sort of day. Burly gentlemen with a telling affection for whispering sweet nothings into their cufflinks invaded the press box, a clear signal that the Prime Minister was searching for credibility, a signed bat and tuition on the basic forward defensive shot from St Geoffrey Boycott. David Cameron was welcomed as a cricket lover, even if Michael Atherton, the little scamp, recalled the story of the politician’s penchant for referring to Paul Collingwood as “Colin Wood”.
The identity of Australia’s principal tormentors merely added to the angst. Both Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann have provocative personalities. They get on the front foot, and play in peoples’ faces. They bat with a certain swagger, a challenging pretence. If no one likes them they do not particularly care. Resentment is good for business.
Test match cricket is a game of momentum, which started to shift irrevocably when they shared a buccaneering last-wicket stand of 48. Broad, whose reluctance to walk in Nottingham has not been forgotten, swatted away the inevitable reminders of his supposed immorality from the ring of fielders clustered around him.
Broad had arrived at the crease with additional protection on his suspect shoulder just in case Australian frustration acquired a physical dimension. He left the square, after scoring 33, fractionally after the opposition, who treated his cheeky disputation of a routine nick to the wicketkeeper with contempt.
They strode towards the pavilion without bothering to wait for confirmation of his fate, while TV affirmed the obvious. Perhaps they were in a rush to celebrate Brad Haddin, a study of still life for much of the proceedings, managing to cling on to the catch.
Broad claimed a solitary wicket on a lazy, crazy afternoon. Fate decreed, inevitably enough, that it had to be that of Clarke, who was plumb leg-before. Poignantly – and worryingly for the dressing room attendants who must have feared the worst when the balcony doors were closed on his return – he seemed pained that he lacked the lifebelt of a potential review.
Swann, a study in insouciance with wraparound shades and upturned collar, did the rest. He was a strangely peripheral figure on that climactic final day at Trent Bridge, where he had trouble controlling his length and accuracy. He did not have to bowl that well to secure his 16th five-wicket haul in 54 Tests.
His dismissal of Chris Rogers will doubtlessly go viral. It brought the occasional absurdity of the village green to the home of cricket. Four factors went awry, and four men had little of which to boast.
Swann’s thigh-high full toss should have been swiped for six. Rogers swung, and missed, with the hapless vigour of a short-sighted blacksmith. Umpire Marais Erasmus saw the ball dip sharply and hit the batsman in the box, and somehow gave him out. Usman Khawaja, who had the perfect opportunity to judge that the ball was well outside leg stump, did not advise an appeal.
Khawaja, one of those who failed to hand in his homework to previous coach Mickey Arthur, remains in the remedial class. His hoick to a back-pedalling Kevin Pietersen summed up the faults of the top six who, in 18 innings so far in this series, have contributed 14 scores of 30, or less.
To borrow a football phrase, can we play you every week?