James Lawton: Cyclical decline? This slump looks terminal

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Are we feeling yet a small pang of pity for what is left of Australian cricket? No, thought not, but if the memory of English humiliation four years ago is still too vivid there is another question and the answer may be a bit more complicated.

The issue was hard to keep below the surface in Brisbane, when Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss and Jonathan Trott treated the Aussie bowlers with such disdain. It was pretty near impossible in Adelaide, when Kevin Pietersen was both implacable and brilliant and by the last day the only Australians who had not abandoned the Oval were the contracted players and cleaners. In the small hours of yesterday, though, it could be suppressed no more.

Have we really seen the last of the great Australians? Are the remnants of Ricky Ponting's once unbeatable team shuffling off into the margins of serious competition for a while or are they crashing through a widening hole in the culture of their nation's sport? Are we talking cyclical or terminal? Events in Perth, surely, smacked of something of the latter.

England's cricketers simply looked to belong to a different order. They were confident to the point of contempt and when Mitchell Johnson, the most wretched of figures in Brisbane, was emboldened sufficiently by his fine defiant knock amid the wreckage of the Australian first innings to exchange insults with Jimmy Anderson, and then the undefeated England openers, the effect was less abrasive than poignant.

You want to see Australia beaten, no doubt, but perhaps not cuffed to one side, desperate to exert themselves but somewhat out of their depth, because what does this offer for the future in the way of great battles in arguably the most intriguing form of all of international sport?

How quickly can we expect an Ashes series of the quality of 2005? Could it happen inside another decade? You would require generous odds to make the bet.

Former Australia captain Steve Waugh, a superb but merciless competitor who put a name to the greatest bonus provided by effective sledging – the "mental disintegration" of your opponents – was at the Waca to see something he probably never contemplated: the sight of an Australian team not only outplayed but almost disregarded.

Most devastating, surely, was the emergence from the shadows of Chris Tremlett and his giant wingspan. He was England's first option of three in the wake of Stuart Broad's injury and his impact was nothing less than awesome.

You could only compare Tremlett's arrival with the agitated deliberations of the Australian selectors Greg Chappell and David Boon and the bleak message they gave to Ponting to pass on to Michael Beer. In a breath or two the 26-year-old was banished to the obscurity from which he came.

You could not but recall the advice Boon had given to England nearly 20 years ago after he had played his part in another ritual slaughter at the Sydney Cricket Ground. "It's like playing against a cast of thousands," he said. "You Poms are amazing. You just don't invest in young players, you don't settle on a team and stick by it, give it time to grow."

It would have been heartless to remind Boon of those words, at least on another day when beating Australia seemed more of a chore than a challenge and you worried that the Ashes might never again be quite the same.