Ashes 2015: England pay for hubris in Cardiff afterglow

The Englishmen had made it sound like the whole Ashes business was done and dusted 

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What a desperate kind of hubris that Cardiff aftermath looks like now. “When Rooty caught the catch at the end it was like revenge,” Ben Stokes said back then, eight days ago – and yet somehow a lifetime. “When they were eight wickets down I was thinking about how we felt, when we were getting beat every game…” The Englishman had made it sound like the whole Ashes business was done and dusted, just like Jimmy Anderson, complaining about the gracelessness of the Australian team not wanting to take a drink in the dressing room.

Anderson had neglected to research the historic details of that little social ceremony. The Aussies imbibe with the English at the end of a series, not the first Test, and it was certainly not the end of the series where they were concerned. They did not want English company because they were wounded; too busy preparing to get that defeat out of their system and honing the way they would penetrate English flaws. For them, the fifth stump line to Adam Lyth – dismissed caught behind or in slip/gully seven times out of eight now in an England career which has found him a distance short of Test class – was the very elementary part.

There would be a short leg for Ian Bell. And the short ball for Joe Root which Mitchell Johnson was brought in to deliver during the enervating 41-minute session after tea, in which England plumbed the depths of capitulation: 39 runs for five wickets as they plunged all out in 17 overs more than Twenty20 distance.

No material Australian plan was required for Gary Ballance. There have been many moments to make your heart sink across the course of the past three days here – and Stokes’ run-out, tripping into his crease without so much as a bat to the ground was right up there. But none matched the sight of Ballance, waiting anxiously back on his lines in the first innings, perishing all-ends-up by turning a half-volley ball into one of good length.

There are not many top-order alternatives available to fix a sequence in which  England have failed to register anything more than 52 for the loss of their first three wickets this year, but this job looks beyond Ballance. Joe Root’s elevation to No 3, with Jonny Bairstow in for Ballance is an option. Ian Bell may survive by being on home turf for the Edgbaston third Test.

There seemed to be significance in Cook’s observation, within earshot of his team-mates, that change of personnel was “something we have to look at”. He volunteered the discussion of the top order’s failings. A viable alternative to Lyth is hard to find because Alex Hales does not look like he has the form either. The search for a partner for Cook, which began when Andrew Strauss retired three years ago, is still no closer to locating a candidate.

But what England really need resides way beyond the technical. It is the mental faculty to contend with this Antipodean machine and the kind of feeding frenzy that things can degenerate into when they sniff so much as a hint of weakness. To have said England were outplayed as they collapsed all out in a few hours would be to imply that they had played. They folded, Stuart Broad and Moeen Ali’s lollipop catches just the late, feeble knockings to which the venom of the moustachioed Mitchell was such a devastating foil. Clarke talked of how the discussion of Lord’s began before the team left Cardiff and, to a man, those who had suffered there, or taken collateral gain from the experience, prospered here.

The novice at Test level Mitchell Marsh and the debutant Peter Nevill flourished. (So much for the famous graveyard of fledgling wicketkeepers that we were told Lord’s would be.) Steve Smith learnt from the error of the disdain he had shown for Moeen in south Wales. He eviscerated him calmly, instead. And then, of course, there was Johnson. The 33-year-old’s follow-through took him virtually nose to nose with the Englishmen, as he reached what they will have to hope was his apotheosis this afternoon.

Cardiff, Cardiff, Cardiff: the city’s name and what it had provoked flooded into Clarke’s post-match talk. His observations on Johnson were “the same they have been throughout his career,” he said, grinning and not neglecting to mention his run-out of Stokes. Clarke observed that people don’t always see the athlete in this strike-man. “He is a great weapon to have in your team, that’s for sure,” he reflected.

England will surely have learnt the folly of attempting to neuter him with an anaemic wicket – a strategy which played hopelessly into Australia’s hands by denying themselves any lateral movement. Yet the grim reality to take to the Edgbaston track is written through the bowling mathematics of the past four days. Australia bowled England out twice. England mustered only 10 wickets across the two innings.

For all that, the historic ebbs and flows of these series mean that Australian invincibility is not a given. The free and youthful impudence that this new English side possess has not vanished into the north London night, any more than the light went out on the Australians in Cardiff. The most profound concern is whether England are capable of extracting the means to dig in and survive from their carefree cricketing joie de vivre. The failure to take the second innings into so much as the final morning suggests they will struggle with that dimension. “You do have to change method if you are going to bat 150 overs out to save a game,” Cook admitted.

There comes a time when you have to “just do it,” the captain reflected. It was out of a sense of embarrassment that Australia accomplished this recovery. England, nursing an agony which must run incalculably deeper, can only now draw on it and hope to provoke a similar indignation in themselves.

Best of the action from the fourth day at Lord’s

Shot of the day

Amid a series of inventive strokes by Steve Smith on a rumbustious morning, his sashaying down the pitch to Stuart Broad to hit a four over cover stood out.

Moment of the day

Australia batsman Chris Rogers retired hurt on 49 with dizziness. Although he did not field, he gave the thumbs-up sign from the Aussie balcony. Would have been only the fifth player to make nine 50s in 10 Test innings.

Ball of the day

Mitchell Johnson’s spell when the game was all but done was still compelling and the ball he bowled to Jos Buttler, the first after tea, was fast and menacing.

Quick single

This was Australia’s third largest victory by runs in the Ashes following their 562 margin at The Oval in 1938 and the 409 gap here in 1948. It was their 15th victory at Lord’s.

Stephen Brenkley

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