A strong wind swirled around the Waca on Monday afternoon, blowing the Ashes back towards Australia. The victorious home players embraced on the field; the ground, half-empty after the day’s rain, rose to acclaim them. It was 863 days after England had reclaimed the Ashes amid scenes of rapturous disbelief at Trent Bridge. Now, the urn was Australia’s again.
It was hard to begrudge them their unconfined joy, and on some level perhaps it was possible even to feel a little envious of the unbridled fervour that Ashes cricket still ignites in this country. This is a contest that still resonates on a national scale, in a way that it has not done in England since most of the current squad were children. And for Australia, winning the Ashes on home soil has been less a sporting challenge and more an article of faith, a rite of passage.
They have played magnificently, with spirit and purpose, intelligence and aggression. Pat Cummins may have taken the final wicket here, and Josh Hazlewood may have delivered the decisive spell. Nathan Lyon may have made the key breakthroughs, Steve Smith and the Marsh brothers the centuries. But this has been a collective success, driven by a collective sense of mission, the belief above all that for all their flaws, it would be England’s that were exposed first.
Perhaps these things will become clearer in retrospect, but it seems safe to say that England have been startled by the intensity of their cricket, by their bloody-minded willingness to adopt any tactic necessary for victory, whether it is a stump-mic aside, gritty tail-order runs, a magnificent catch or a game-changing spell. England wanted it, of course they did. But you have to say Australia wanted it more.
And so to England.
There have been signs of encouragement, of course. Dawid Malan supplemented his first-innings century with a battling 54, and perhaps this was the Test where he finally announced himself as a Test cricketer of substance. Craig Overton made a sparkling debut at Adelaide and even if a cracked rib is likely to keep him out in the short-term, in the long-term, England have unearthed a gem.
No, by and large England’s collapse here has been one authored by their established players. Alastair Cook has failed to pass 50. Joe Root has failed to pass 100 with the bat. Moeen Ali, England’s sole spinner, has failed to provide either penetration or economy with the ball. Ben Stokes failed even to get on the plane. If the collective has driven Australia’s success, it has also driven England’s lack of it.
Most tellingly of all, England’s identikit pace attack has simply looked bereft when conditions are not helping them. The blame for that cannot be laid squarely at the likes of James Anderson, Stuart Broad or Chris Woakes. They are, for better or worse, the bowlers they are.
The roots of this defeat go deeper than personnel, and when the autopsy finally takes place, it must look beyond headbutts and curfews, beyond nightclub fracas and stray schooners of beer, right into the very skeleton of English cricket.
No excuses can be pleaded, either. England’s third defeat in three games may have arrived in slightly farcical circumstances, on a cracked pitch with eccentric bounce. Torrential rain had seeped through the covers overnight, creating a number of wet patches on a length that England coach Trevor Bayliss described as “unacceptable”. Four groundstaff spent most of the morning on their knees tending to the wet patches with leaf-blowers, as if restoring a delicate Renaissance fresco, frequent rain showers despatching them to the pavilion.
The 10am start was delayed to noon, and then to 12.40pm and finally – to Root’s evident chagrin – 1pm.
Still, a captain who has won all three tosses this series can scarcely complain about fortune deserting them. And there was to be no Christmas miracle for England. The pitch fiasco was a source of mild embarrassment to the Waca, which will not host another Ashes Test after this. But ultimately, the real embarrassment would be England’s. Jonny Bairstow’s first ball of the day landed squarely in one of the wet patches and cleaned up middle stump around halfway up. England’s capitulation, it seemed, had not been averted, only deferred.
Moeen dug in for a good hour, having survived an almighty shout when he was caught at second slip from his fourth ball, only for third umpire Aleem Dar to adjudge that the ball had bounced first. Lyon trapped him on the front foot, as he has been doing all series, and when Malan gloved behind for a heroic 54, compiled over three-and-a-half painstaking hours, England’s game was up.
The fallout will be prolonged and painful. England’s defeated side have another four weeks of traipsing around this country, their white-ball players another month beyond. Christmas dinner in Melbourne will taste of nothing at all. New Year’s Eve in Sydney will leave them cold. Careers and livelihoods are at risk. Yes: the winds of change are about to blow through English cricket, and you suspect that not everyone will be left standing afterwards.
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