You can’t say it wasn’t unexpected. All those late nights and early mornings spent in front of the TV hoping, praying for an English success Down Under, only to see them defeated four games to nil, with two of those being by an innings and another by 10 wickets. The score line is indeed harsh, and taken on surface value it shows an England team in disarray, in a similar manner to the last Ashes series in Australia, after which wholesale changes were made to the mentality and structure of the England side. If one looks beneath the skin of the series, however, it is possible to recover some positives. They are few and far between, like un-sunburnt Englishmen at the SCG, but they are there. With these as the tarnished silver lining on the darkest of storm clouds, let’s unsheathe our scalpels and get this autopsy underway.
Going into the series, everybody acknowledged the fact that to win in Australia, you need runs on the board. With a Kookaburra ball which stops moving after fifteen overs or so, and flat, bouncy pitches, wickets are hard to come by, and are often expensive when they do. And it has to be said, the English batting lineup at the start of the series looked mediocre at best. With the edge prone James Vince at three, and the largely untested Mark Stoneman and Dawid Malan at two and five respectively, the batting unit were relying heavily on current captain Joe Root and former captain Alastair Cook to have big series.
For the large part, certainly early in the series, the experienced members of the unit failed to provide the runs which would have been expected of them. Especially concerning was the sudden poor form of Alastair Cook. He looked tentative, as if he were struggling against the pace and bounce of the Aussie pace attack. Then, almost inexplicably, in the fourth test at the MCG, without having shown any glimmer of form in the previous games, he knocked off 244*. Unbelievably, Cook walks away from the series with an average of 47 having only passed 50 once.
The pitch at the MCG was by far the slowest and flattest in the whole series, which nullified the Aussie fast bowlers of whom the quickest, Mitchell Starc, was out through injury anyway. Cook appears to have a problem against accurate, genuinely quick bowling on bouncy wickets. “And who doesn’t?”, I hear you ask, and you would indeed be correct, but this is a batsman who excels against the swinging ball having scored mountains of runs in the hardest conditions in England. For a world class opener, he seems to really struggle on fast wickets. In the 2015-16 series in South Africa, against the likes of Steyn and Morkel, Cook averaged only 22. He barely troubled the scorers in the 2013-14 Ashes, when Mitchell Johnson bowled at the speed of light. The one anomaly is the 2010-11 Ashes, when he scored over 700 runs. But in that series, their fastest bowler Johnson could barely hit a barn door, and with Cook’s relentlessly accurate nemesis Ryan Harris seemingly permanently injured, the remaining attack was rather toothless.
Some have suggested that his eyes are going, or even that he is struggling to see through a new style of helmet with a narrower eye slit. I think that a lifetime of playing a swinging ball, when playing the ball late is necessary to prevent the ball moving after selecting the shot to play, has meant that he naturally plays the ball a fraction of a second too late against the truly fast bowlers, meaning he is rushed, which leads to edges. But remove the pace, either by reducing the pace of the bowlers or that of the pitch, then his class shines through. His 244* in the boxing day test on a truly turgid pitch, in which he played down the ground with aplomb in addition to his characteristic cut through point, showed why he is the youngest batsman to 12,000 test runs in history.
Other than Cook, the only players to score tons were Johnny Bairstow and Dawid Malan in Perth. Bairstow has long been one of the keystones of the batting lineup for England, and his celebration of headbutting his helmet on the back of a truly laughable incident before the series in a Perth bar was a nice touch. But it was Malan’s emotional century in the same innings, with his parents in attendance, which was the headline. His three other fifties in the series combined with a strong mentality and technique show that he could quite possibly be a solution to England’s endless problems at five.
As for the rest of the batsmen, it was a story of starts without the endings. As Cook struggled, his opening partner Stoneman hit two fifties in the series without going on to three figures. Vince hit the same number, similarly failing to convert. Neither averaged over 30 for the series. Vince’s dismissals in particular showed that his tendency to snick off attempting one too many of his admittedly gorgeous cover drives had not been overcome, much to the frustration of the England supporters. The king of the non-converters, however, was Joe Root. He managed to hit five fifties in the series, including one while suffering from a combination of heatstroke and gastroenteritis so serious he spent a night in a Sydney hospital, all without converting a single one to a ton.
This failure to convert good starts combined with the weakness of the England tail meant that at no point were England able to get themselves into a truly match winning position with the bat. Ignoring Melbourne, where 491 in the first dig may well have been enough to win had the pitch not been so flat that they could have been playing on it after ten days, let alone five, there were two cases in which England failed to capitalise from a strong position with the bat.
The first was in the second test in Adelaide, when, thanks to a brilliant bowling performance by James Anderson, England needed 178 to win at the start of the fifth day with six wickets remaining and Joe Root at the crease. Not an easy task, for sure, but not as hard as England made it look as they were bowled out just after lunch. Had Root converted from 61* overnight, or had the tail shown some resilience, they could have quite easily won the game.
The second was in the third match in Perth, when, following the centuries from Bairstow and Malan, England found themselves 368-5 and should really have pushed onto 450 or even 500 against a tiring attack, but instead collapsed to 403 all out, a score which was far from sufficient, and England lost the game by an innings and 41 runs.
Part of the reason England lost that game, and all four games they lost, was their consistent inability to take wickets on Australian pitches. Not once in the series did they manage to take 20 wickets in a game, and at times the Australian batsmen looked like they were facing a U-15 attack. The most glaring issue was the lack of consistent spin bowling. Moeen Ali was sidelined with a side strain before the series, so didn’t play in any of the warmup games, and as a result was hopelessly undercooked in the first test at the Gabba. Additionally, he seemed to be suffering from some kind of blister or cut on his spinning finger, which prevented him from putting as many revs on the ball as usual. It all added up to a truly dismal return, taking 5 wickets at an average of 115 in the series. Whether this poor form leaked into his batting is hard to say, but what is evident is that he averaged only 19 with the bat.
In any other situation, he might well have been dropped, but England’s bullet ridden foot of a tour party selection meant that the only other they had brought on the tour was 20-year-old leggie Mason Crane who they couldn’t reasonably play as a sole spinner. As it happens, when Crane did play, in the final test in Sydney alongside Ali, his figures of 1-193, the worst England debut by a bowler ever, were not reflective of his performance and he deserved more wickets than he got, but without a spinner who could consistently hold up an end to call on, England couldn’t have dropped Ali.
England’s pace attack didn’t fare much better. Aside from James Anderson, who was by far the pick of the England attack and the only one to take a five-for in the series, the England bowlers were painfully mediocre. None of them had the pace to trouble the Aussie batsmen, and most struggled to maintain a line and length consistently. Even Stuart Broad, left stranded on 399 test wickets at the end of the series, struggled at the start of the series before regaining form towards the end.
And again, it’s really the selection which caused most of these issues. England could have quite happily brought Liam Plunkett, who bowls at a far higher pace than anything England fielded, and heck Mark Wood was in Australia for most of the tour with the Lions. For weeks, the press has been questioning where the genuinely fast English pace bowlers are, but there are two which could have quite happily been picked sitting around twiddling their thumbs.
As for those who did play, Chris Woakes looked like he hadn’t quite found rhythm following his extended injury layoff in the summer and was down on pace while Jake Ball was probably not 100% fit when selected at the Gabba, and was dropped following that game. His replacement Craig Overton was again uninspiring without any real pace, and he picked up an injury in Perth, so was replaced by Tom Curran, who again wasn’t exactly fast, but whose youth and energy were pleasing to see. It will be interesting to see him in a few years.
While the England attack was sub-par, the Australian batsmen, specifically Steve Smith, would have made any attack look timid. This series could quite easily be called Smith’s Ashes. Averaging 137 with 3 centuries including a double ton, his characteristic, if extremely unorthodox, batting technique, moving way outside off stump as the bowler delivers, is surely a nightmare to bowl to. His contributions, combined with those from the Marsh brothers, batted England out of every game. The bowling attack too is up there with some of the best in history. Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins blew away the England tail with their pace and Josh Hazlewood hit a sixpence at speed. Hugely underrated before the series, Nathan Lyon terrorised the English batting in the first three games, before fading a touch on his less favoured grounds later in the series.
As such, it is difficult to determine whether it was England’s poor form or Australia’s brilliant form which was the deciding factor in the series. As an England supporter, the series was at time frustrating, rather than depressing, to watch because, bar the final game in Sydney, there were points in every game with both bat and ball where you felt like had England really pushed on, they could have put themselves into a position from which they would struggle to lose. And this is why I would argue that despite the brilliance of the Australian side, it was England who lost the series, rather than Australia who won it. If England had chased the total in Adelaide or posted 500 in Perth, both situations far from impossible, they not have won the series, but they would certainly not have come away with their tail between their legs as they are currently.
Even despite of this, the fact that they were in those positions against such a strong side in their back yard is a positive. Aside maybe from Moeen Ali, the whole team showed they had at least some degree of fight, and it will be intriguing to see some of the younger players progress in more helpful conditions and against less terrifying opposition. I think it would be a huge stretch to say that England should be content, but this series was far from the apocalyptically depressing performance from 2013-14. Provided England don’t embarrass themselves in the next series in New Zealand, I would expect the team to remain pretty much the same come summer, and provided there are no knee jerk reactions in the next few weeks, I would expect the Aussies to have far more trouble next time around.