The Blog

Ashes Rollicking Result of Poor English Attitude

How on earth have the Australians - defeated 3-0 only a few months ago - reversed the impetus from that series to such an extent that England's players now genuinely appear helpless?

That's that, then. Half an hour after lunch on the final day of the Perth Test James Anderson popped a Mitchell Johnson delivery into the leg side to seal a result few had doubted after the fiery Australian attack had once again dismantled England's batting first time around. Many will demand to know how, after a period of apparent Ashes dominance, the urn has this time been surrendered in such striking fashion. After the small matter of 381 and 218-run English losses in the first two matches in Brisbane and Adelaide, an 150-run thumping at the Waca has confirmed a 3-0 triumph for Michael Clarke's men, constituting the first Ashes series win for Australia since 2007.

The simplest explanation would be that Australia have batted, bowled and fielded to a level far exceeding their increasing tentative and malfunctioning opponents. England's top order have come off a comfortable second best against a skilful, motivated fast bowling attack. Their lower middle order have almost from ball one been bullied into submission by the thunderbolts of a resurgent Mitchell Johnson. Their bowlers, due to a combination of factors including batting failings and fatigue, have been unable to stem the tide against a positive line-up on pitches familiar and therefore favourable to Australian batsmen. Ground and aerial fielding standards reached a level in Perth that an incredulous Shane Warne rightly described as "horrendous".

There is, however, more to the story. How on earth have the Australians - defeated 3-0 only a few months ago - reversed the impetus from that series to such an extent that England's players now genuinely appear helpless? The corresponding fixtures in the English summer, less one-sided than the scoreline would suggest, were characterised by the ability of the home side to 'win' the really important moments. Australia, despite dominating considerable periods, therefore lost heavily overall. This is the attribute of a team that - as England were back then - are used to winning. Given the role momentum plays in sport it is therefore extraordinary that the Australians, having until a month ago suffered a miserable few series in Test cricket, are now cowing their previous tormentors.

The real explanation for the England players' meek performances - the psychological rationale for their batting, bowling and fielding shortcomings - is two-fold. Firstly, Mitchell Johnson has given them one hell of a shock. Derided by an entire support base three years ago to an almost career-ending extent, remarkably he has re-emerged stronger, faster and more accurate than before. The England team's first showing of the series - a bowling performance that ended Australia's first innings at a middling 295 in Brisbane - felt more or less like business as usual. This was followed by carnage. Johnson induced a remarkable collapse in the English first innings en route to match figures of 9-103, fundamentally altering the dynamic of the contest. The England players were shell-shocked on a bouncy pitch into a catastrophic loss of confidence. Unforgivably, they then surrendered 7-40 to Johnson at Adelaide on a calmer surface, and the series was as good as gone. The result of below-par batting efforts was that the Australian batsmen were never under really pressure when their turn came; worse, the disintegration in confidence filtered down to the English bowlers, whose performance levels noticeably dropped.

Importantly, though, the England team only have themselves to blame for this stunning reversal in fortunes, catalysed by a couple of brutish fast bowling displays from Johnson. Notably, all the great sides of the last few decades have played positive cricket. England, by contrast, have a self-confessed "dry" method of bowling, with their batting similarly cautious. While they were winning against less confident teams that made mistakes this strategy was, if not welcomed, then grudgingly accepted. The problem, though, was always going to be that such a stand-offish brand of cricket invites opposition teams to regain the initiative.

After sweeping aside an embarrassing Australian performance at Lords many onlookers (myself included) were tentatively predicting a 5-0 English whitewash a few months ago. What actually ensued - forgotten in the aftermath of an apparently convincing 3-0 series result - was an Australian resurgence in the final three matches. Indeed, if not for the weather Michael Clarke's side could well have won the contests at Old Trafford and the Oval. England, by contrast, went into their shells. At the Oval - implausibly given the series situation - they plodded along for much of their first innings at little more than two runs an over. From an objective standpoint it would have been a travesty if, due to a generous and desperate declaration from Clarke, they had stolen the match.

Whereas England stalled, Australia - with the series well lost - regrouped. Outstanding individual performances from Clarke, Smith, Watson and particularly Harris hinted at a more settled team structure. By the time of the Brisbane Test the side was motivated, focused and in a position to hit England hard. Would this have been possible had Cook's men take a more enterprising approach after Lords, rather than instinctively sit back on their lead? It was intensely frustrating to watch England come close to chasing down their unlikely fourth innings target at the Oval - not because of how close they came, but because it showed what the team is capable of when they play aggressive, bustling cricket.

It is no coincidence that the best English batting partnership of the series so far - the hopeless Bell/Stokes alliance in the second innings at Perth - was well-paced, filled with more selective strokeplay and attacking intent than we have otherwise seen so far. This energy caused the performance levels of the Australian fast bowlers to noticeably dip - it is manifestly obvious that this is the way to go in the final two Tests at Melbourne and Sydney. Hopefully, a 5-0 series result can thus be averted. External factors have been stacked against England throughout this series - notably three lost tosses, home pitch conditions and the loss of Trott, previously the bedrock of the team - but these do not excuse a fundamentally negative attitude. It may well be that this current England crop have technical limitations that would have prevented them from creating a legacy to match the old Australian and West Indies sides, but with a more dynamic playing style an unquestionably excellent side - now past their best - would have stood a better chance.