Chris Waters - The Ashes: Numbers do not lie as England begin soul searching
SACK the captain. Sack the coach. Sack the players. Sack the backroom staff. Sack the tea lady. Sack the tea lady's cat. Sack the tea lady's cat's cousin.
Blame county cricket. Blame the England and Wales Cricket Board. Blame the new city-based T20 franchise competition. Blame Ben Stokes. Blame Avon and Somerset Police. Blame the long-winded workings of the legal system.
Sack and blame whatever you like, but the reason that England lost the Ashes is simple.
They were beaten by the better side, one with more quality and more geared up to win in Australian conditions.
It is one of sport’s oldest cliches that “the opposition are allowed to play well”, but the fact is that Australia have played well – much better than England.
Whereas England had their moments in all three Tests, not least when they were 368-4 on day two in Perth, Australia rode those tough periods and then crushed the tourists with ruthless efficiency.
The disappointment for England is that they could – and should – have done that much better.
Even accounting for Australia’s excellence, few of Joe Root’s players will feel that they have done themselves justice – least of all himself.
Now the ghost of Christmas past looms again in the spectre of a 5-0 whitewash, with England needing to lift themselves for the final two Tests, the first of them starting in Melbourne on Boxing Day.
Ashes defeats are hard to take at the best of times, but more so when England travelled Down Under with not unreasonable hope of retaining the urn.
The biggest reason why they have not done so – and this was always the million dollar question going into the series – is that Australia’s pace attack have not only performed, but they have also stayed fit.
Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins were players of proven quality, but they had never played a Test together prior to Brisbane due to various injury problems and their fitness and form seemed likely to be key.
So it has proved, with Starc the leading wicket-taker with 19 at 21.05, ably supported by Hazlewood (15 at 23.20), Cummins (11 at 30.09) and spinner Nathan Lyon (14 at 26.07). In contrast, with the respective batting line-ups fairly well matched, only James Anderson (12 at 25.83) has stood tall for England.
Chris Woakes (seven wickets at 51.57), Stuart Broad (five at 61.80) and Moeen Ali (three at 105.33) have simply not delivered, with Moeen also enduring a torrid time with the bat (116 runs at 19.33).
Craig Overton (six wickets in two games at 37.66) has shown promise, but it is a bit like trying to take the positives when your house has just been burgled – oh well, at least the blighters didn’t steal the collection of Wisdens.
Bowlers win matches, batsmen set them up, and if Root had possessed Starc, Hazlewood, Cummins and Lyon, instead of Woakes, Broad, Overton and Ali, England would have won, and Steve Smith – outstanding player though he is – would not have scored 426 runs at 142.00 compared with Root’s 176 at 29.33.
It fails to mask a poor return by the England captain, of course, one magnified by the magnificence of his Australian counterpart, but Root is not the only one left licking his wounds.
Alastair Cook has scored 83 runs in six innings at 13.83, while for all the promise that they have shown at various stages, James Vince is averaging 30.33 and Mark Stoneman 32.16 – numbers that are not going to win too many Test series.
On the flip side, Dawid Malan has cemented his place at No 5 (and thus compounded the frustrations of Yorkshire’s Gary Ballance) with 302 runs at 50.33, a return second only to the superlative Smith.
Jonny Bairstow is the third-highest scorer in the series with 241 at 40.16, but England’s lower-order were routinely eviscerated, unable to cope with Australia’s pace.
Inevitably, with England’s bowlers having been exposed in conditions offering little or no seam or swing, the inquests are under way with customary vengeance. Why do we not have express pace bowlers? Why do we not have a world-class spinner? Why could we not have seen it all coming?
Inevitably also, county cricket will bear the brunt, cited for the umpteenth time as an anachronistic mediocrity in which 70mph medium-pacers thrive on pudding-like pitches.
There is some truth in this, along with the fact that the marginalisation of the County Championship into the traditionally less clement months of April and September – to feed the T20 cash cow – encourages neither pace man nor spinner.
But Glenn McGrath is surely right when he says that genuine fast bowlers are born and not made, and there was plenty of Championship cricket played throughout those English summers in which the fearsome West Indies pace attack were dominating world cricket in the 1970s and 1980s, along with plenty of top overseas pace bowlers for English batsmen to play against too.
In the final analysis, the climate, the lifestyle, the pitches – all these factors are significant in explaining why certain teams thrive in certain conditions. The plain fact is that just about the best team that England had available has lost to Australia in Australian conditions.
The hosts deserve their champagne celebrations, while England – for reasons that do not need explanation – can only dream of going out on the lash to drown their sorrows.