After a day that saw Australia lose just one wicket and a relative Test rookie Mitch Marsh pile on an unbeaten 180, apart from the small matter of an unbeaten double century by Oz captain and the man of the moment Steven Smith, England assistant coach Paul Farbrace said, “We don’t have that extra pace and we haven’t got the highest quality of magical spin. We’ve got what we’ve got and we’ve had to work exceptionally hard”. An exaggerated version of the statement could well be, “We’ve got what we’ve got, we just have to learn to bat, bowl and field”.
Exaggerations are like that - outlandish. But they tend to convey the core import of a conversation.
England is not competing in the current Ashes, because England is “not playing”. The performances of its key stars, namely Alastair Cook, Joe Root, James Anderson, Stuart Broad, and Moeen Ali, can best be described by the reflexes of a deer caught in headlights. Make no mistake, that is not only half the English team, but the only half that is experienced enough to be leading a fight in a tough battle like an away Ashes series.
Alastair Cook, who played his 150th Test in Perth, has made a total of 83 runs in the six inningsat an average of 13.8 in the three matches so far. Captain Joe Root fared slightly better, scoring 175 at an average of 29. Amid a largely untested upper and middle half of the batting line up, these two fine batsmen were expected to lead the way for England. Lead they have not, scoring a grand total of 258 runs between them in the first three Tests.
Contrast the collective effort of the top English duo with Steven Smith alone’s 239 in the first innings of the third test, and you get the picture.
At the other end, with Anderson, Broad, Voakes and Overton being different expressions of the same variety, the success of the English bowling depended a lot on the variety provided by their ‘number one spin bowler’, Moeen Ali. Alas, he fared just as bad as the batsmen mentioned earlier. In the six innings of the first three matches, Ali took a measly three wickets for 317 runs, at over 100 runs per wicket. In contrast, Australia’s number one spinner Nathan Lyon, till writing this piece, has taken 14 wickets for 347 runs at 24.7 runs apiece.
Clearly, the English team has not spoken with either the bat or the ball. Since ability cannot suddenly disappear overnight, it clearly seems to be a case of the heart not giving company to the body on the pitch.
Is it because of the controversy surrounding Ben Stoke’s exclusion from the Ashes party due to an altercation outside a Bristol nightclub in September, a little before the Ashes tour?
Did the incident during the early stages of the tour that involved England wicket-keeper Jonny Bairstow greeting Australian opener Cameron Bancroft in a bar in Perth with what eventually was termed as “non-malicious meeting of heads” add to the psychological chaos? After all, it was considered weighty enough to lead to a midnight curfew being imposed on the squad.
And then, there was the bizarre one of England batsman Ben Duckett being suspended pending an internal investigation by the ECB after he was involved in an incident at the same bar, in which he is believed to have poured beer over the head of James Anderson.
There’s a lot going on in a captain’s mind already. He certainly can do without such ungainly distractions. Bairstow indeed accepted prior to the third test that the off-field incidents have let Root down.
This is not to pin all the blame for the performance on the field to those incidents. It is just to say that the English brains do not seem clutter-free enough to be facing the Oz challenge. The bodies are toiling, the sweat is flowing, the shirts are getting dirty, but the brain just does not seem to be guiding them well. They know who and where they are, they see the Aussies coming hard at them, but they are not able to react to it.