Where have all the Ashes heroes gone? Long time passing. Gone to seed every one. Long time ago. It is but two weeks since England won their great prize, the one they came for, but already it seems from another age.
The tourists lost their third consecutive match in the one-day series against Australia yesterday and for the third time were bowled out without using their allotted overs. Five of their first-choice team, all part of the Ashes triumph, were missing from the action, resting or injured, and almost to a man their other colleagues from the great campaign looked spent.
That England keep losing to an insubstantial Australian team is bad enough; that their strategy for the World Cup starting in 26 days seems to be in such a parlous state may be worse. They insist there is no post-Ashes malaise, but if that is so, the other possible explanations are frightening to contemplate. All lead to a similar conclusion – that England may not be accomplished enough in depth to have a real chance in the World Cup.
There is no reason as yet to panic and there probably is not time. When England won the Ashes at home in 2009 they lost the subsequent limited-overs series by 6-1, looking careworn, yet a few weeks later they reached the semi-finals of the Champions Trophy with batting that was full of conviction.
At present they can hope only that the World Cup will have a similarly galvanising effect. But the batting, which during the Test series could barely do any wrong, can now do little right. They were dismissed yesterday for 214 and, although they gave themselves a partial chance when Australia were 100 for 5, it was a glimmer that soon faded. The line was reached with four wickets in hand and 24 balls to spare.
In none of the three matches of the Commonwealth Bank series have England made as many as they should have done and they have won the toss three times, twice batting first and once pursuing a modest target.
Australia bowled accurately yesterday and their fielding was as sharp as any time this winter, but that does not begin to excuse another insipid performance by England. The shot selection was again dire. If florists chose their wares as wisely as England are choosing their strokes their shops would be full of dead flowers.
England were without Tim Bresnan, whose torn calf muscle will force him to miss the rest of this series and may cast doubt on his World Cup place, Kevin Pietersen with a groin strain and Graeme Swann with a bruised knee. Jimmy Anderson, who will return on Wednesday in Adelaide, and Stuart Broad, with his long-term abdominal strain, were also out.
It all started to go awry from the off and the decision to bring back Matt Prior to open the batting, always a risk, is looking a dodgier experiment than trying to turn iron pyrites into gold. For the second match in a row he was out to the third ball and his decision to ask for a review of the umpire's verdict compounded his felony. Replays showed the ball hitting middle stump.
The fall of England's second wicket was lamentable, the sort of thing that tends to happen to sides who have left their self-belief tucked alongside the Gideon Bible in their hotel rooms. Jonathan Trott played a ball to the leg side and set off for a quick single which Andrew Strauss decided was not there. Strauss turned back for the non-striker's end, Trott kept on coming and, although Australia had missed the stumps at that end, they had time to ferry the ball to the striker's end where no batsman was in residence.
Trott stayed because he was the quicker to reach the crease. It looked as nonsensical as it sounds. There was reason to believe a reasonable total could be obtained but not with the likes of Ian Bell giving a soft return catch and Eoin Morgan slogging a long hop to midwicket. Paul Collingwood played one of the worst two-ball innings in history, inside-edging the first past stumps and completely missing the second to be bowled.
Throughout Trott stayed prosaically calm, maybe too calm, as if a ton of explosives would not force him to move more energetically. But he had a point. All around were losing their heads, there was no point in him jumping over the mountain edge as well.
He was there at the end on 84 not out from 119 balls, having hit three fours. He had not faced enough of the bowling, not struck enough boundaries, but any culpability was slender compared to that of his team-mates.
England made swift inroads into the Australian order – four of their top five went for single figures as Chris Tremlett and Ajmal Shahzad worked up a head of steam. But they were never seriously bothered after David Hussey came in and his innings of 68 from 89 balls was the third in successive matches for Australia of consummate judgement. With another World Cup looming, England look weary and confused. When will they ever learn?
Third one-day international, at the SCG: Australia beat England by four wickets
England won toss
Runs 6s 4s Bls Min
*A J Strauss run out 23 0 2 27 41
†M J Prior lbw b Lee 0 0 0 3 5
I J L Trott not out 84 0 3 119 215
I R Bell c & b Watson 10 0 1 16 22
E J G Morgan c Clarke b Hussey 30 0 2 41 48
P D Collingwood b Doherty 1 0 0 2 2
M H Yardy c & b Doherty 7 0 0 8 7
L J Wright c Haddin b Hastings 32 0 2 46 55
C R Woakes c Haddin b Lee 12 0 0 15 14
A Shahzad c White b Lee 4 0 0 8 8
C T Tremlett run out 1 0 0 4 7
Extras (lb3 w6 nb1) 10
Total (48 overs) 214
Fall 1-1, 2-38, 3-61, 4-118, 5-119, 6-130, 7-179, 8-199, 9-208.
Bowling B Lee 8-0-27-3, D E Bollinger 8-0-36-0, J W Hastings 10-0-51-1, S R Watson 6-0-17-1, S P D Smith 3-0-19-0, X J Doherty 10-0-37-2, D J Hussey 3-0-24-1.
Runs 6s 4s Bls Min
S R Watson b Tremlett 9 0 2 7 6
†B J Haddin c Woakes b Collingwood 54 1 7 59 101
S E Marsh lbw b Shahzad 6 0 1 12 14
*M J Clarke c Yardy b Woakes 9 0 0 18 31
C L White lbw b Collingwood 7 0 0 23 31
D J Hussey not out 68 1 6 89 109
S P D Smith c Yardy b Tremlett 26 1 2 37 57
J W Hastings not out 18 0 1 31 40
Extras (lb7 w11) 18
Total (for 6, 46 overs) 215
Fall 1-10, 2-27, 3-59, 4-92, 5-100, 6-163.
Did not bat B Lee, X J Doherty, D E Bollinger.
Bowling A Shahzad 10-0-45-1, C T Tremlett 9-0-50-2, C R Woakes 7-0-31-1, L J Wright 2-0-12-0, M H Yardy 10-0-45-0, P D Collingwood 8-0-25-2.
Umpires G A Baxter (NZ) and P R Reiffel.
Australia lead seven-match series 3-0
* Remaining fixtures
Wednesday Fourth ODI (Adelaide)
Sun 30 Jan Fifth ODI (Brisbane)
Wed 2 Feb Sixth ODI (Sydney)
Sun 6 Feb Seventh ODI (Perth)