‘It was bound to happen, wasn’t it?’
‘Told you so.’
‘England are no match for Australia.’
‘Is there any point even playing the Ashes?’
These are the things many would have said if the Ashes had started with this match at Lord’s, as traditionally Ashes series in England did for decades before the famous first inaugural Test in Cardiff in 2009. It is a slight relief then, that England managed to wait until at least the second Test to turn in one of their more spineless performances – even by their own recent standards.
For four days, we were back in Australia, circa summer 2013/14. This could have been the Gabba, the MCG or SCG with the sort of showing England offered up. The sense that everything was hopeless, that there was no point in trying anyway, and that losing with dignity was a silly concept. If you saw Andy Flower on the England balcony arguing with Kevin Pietersen, you would barely have raised an eyebrow. The evidence we were Down Under and that it was December ’13 was strong enough as it was.
Mitchell Johnson was back to his fearsome best once more, on a pitch specifically designed to neutralise his considerable threat. His comeback from the worst figures of his career one Test match ago on a slow wicket speaks volumes for his mental strength and grit. He is not just all bark. He is made of sterner stuff inside than most would want to give him credit for. He faced adversity, got written off, and came back to haunt England. For English batsman, he must by now be like the ghost in the attic. Even when he isn’t particularly potent, he can storm in from nowhere and terrorise them again. He was able to adapt intelligently, was quick through the air to compensate for the slowness of the pitch, and was still sharp enough to beat Moeen Ali for pace with a bouncer. Rattling Mr. Unflappable himself on this sort of pitch should be worth an award on its own.
While neither of the two Tests is probably a fair reflection of the sides’ capabilities, it is generally accepted that England had enjoyed a perfect match in Wales, while Australia would still feel there is room for improvement. Even so, the margin of the victory here at Lord’s is an unsettling sight for English fans. With Mitchell Marsh looking like cementing his position in the Australian line-up as their first choice all-rounder, the tourists appear to have a much more settled team.
Marsh’s bowling looks menacing and his batting destructive, meaning there is no obvious weak link in the Australian side England could look to target. Shane Watson’s trouble with LBWs is well-documented and widely (not to mention mercilessly) ridiculed to great amusement, while the threat of his nagging medium-pace bowling had become largely non-existent of late. Was it ever there around these parts, really? Consider this: Mitchell Marsh took more wickets in the 11 overs he bowled this Test than Shane Watson has in his entire Test career in England. Looking ahead, the choice between the two appears a pretty straightforward one.
England have worries of their own. The alarming slide in Bell’s form, man of the series two years ago, appears, to many, to have become a permanent dip in quality. The only member of the current English side to have played in the famous 2005 Ashes series, he provides a wealth of experience, but the argument that it is time to starting planning ahead keeps getting more compelling. It is unfortunate he was on the receiving end of the ball of the series so far that bowled him in the first innings, but if he takes to the field at Edgbaston at all, there is no question he will be playing for his position.
The way England capitulated is a concern in itself. It is no disgrace to be outplayed by a side as good as the current Australian outfit, but the lack of fight and self-belief on display will irk the English faithful. They would almost certainly have lost this Test after the first two days anyway, but raising the white flag on Day 4, and having Australia march them to the inevitable conclusion can surely be put down to a lack of fight as much as the quality of the opposition.
The current English crop, and the players that have played in the last decade, have worked extremely hard to ensure they now face Australia on equal mental footing, all excess baggage shed. If English heads begin to bow down and eyes lower already, they will lose something a lot more significant than just the 2015 Ashes; something that will be a lot more difficult to win back than a 19th century urn.