Ashes: Barmy Army finding things not balmy!

The pertinent question seems not whether England will squander the Ashes, but whether they will do so amid a humiliation to reprise that of 2006/07 or 2013/14.

The England batsmen have not been able to look the Australian pacemen in the face. Here England skipper Joe Root is in some trouble while negotiating a Pat Cummins lifter in Adelaide.   -  AP

The Barmy Army was born in Adelaide. In the sweltering heat on England’s demoralising Ashes tour in 1994/95, a group of bedraggled fans joined together to form the group. Immediately, they were rewarded with one of England’s most unlikely Test triumphs.

Yet, for England fans in Australia, fatalism has basically been the default mode ever since. It is not merely that, in the past 30 years, England have only once restricted Australia to a margin of victory of under two Tests — when England’s methodical preparation led to a wonderful 3-1 series win in 2010/11. It is that most of the time, England have been doing much more than losing. They have been thrashed and humiliated — not merely by Australia themselves, but also by ragtag local sides in tour games too. These have been tours marked by broken bones and broken hearts, of dishevelled teams plumbing unimaginable depths.

On the fourth evening of the Adelaide Test match, all this briefly changed. After a miserable first innings with bat and ball alike, suddenly the Barmy Army rammed into the hill at the Adelaide Oval could glimpse, between glugs of half-strength beer — the only alcohol that non-members are allowed to consume in the ground — the contours of something remarkable.

Englishman Craig Overton is felled by the same Australian quick, Pat Cummins, in the second Test.   -  AFP

 

After conceding a first innings lead of 215, England had skittled Australia for 138, with James Anderson bowling with supreme skill to claim his maiden five-for in Australia. England were avoiding a reprise of their ignominious top order collapse in the first innings, and had reached 169-3 in pursuit of their improbable target of 354. And so it was impossible not to dream that England might turn this promise into one of their occasional momentous victories abroad. Think Bridgetown 1994, when England recovered from being bundled out for 46 all out at Georgetown to topple the West Indies in their fortress. Think Melbourne 1998, when England arrived looking ragtag and broken, and left with a remarkable 12-run heist. Or, of course, think Adelaide 1995. Instead, the ending was nasty, brutish and short. Pat Cummins extracted extra pace to uproot Dawid Malan’s offstump, but England still left the fourth day in the city of churches believing in the hope of a sporting miracle.

Just before the second ball of the final morning, the Barmy Army had begun a rendition of Jerusalem. The second ball of the final morning, Chris Woakes feathered Josh Hazlewood behind, a decision upheld after an excruciating wait. Two overs later, Joe Root nicked a similar ball behind. The Barmy Army’s singing — bizarrely, to an Australian’s tune, because their normal trumpeter was ill so they had to pay for a local replacement — continued but the Test was gone.

In place of a Test victory, a familiar feeling returned for England in Australia: that of despair.

There is no real sense of the squad being divided, unlike in the 2013/14 whitewash. And there is no sense either that England are playing against one of the greatest cricket teams of all time, unlike in the 2006/07 whitewash. Instead, there is just a grim feeling that, while this is a battle between two flawed teams, England’s flaws are so much more conspicuous that yet another whitewash could loom.

It almost make matters worse that the whitewash is a prospect which most Australians seem to have no real relish for. They are all familiar enough with the feeling of humiliating the Poms. What they really crave is a context in a tight Ashes — the sort that, extraordinarily, there has not genuinely been since 1982/83, the last Ashes series Down Under in which the fate of the urn remained uncertain heading into the final Test of the series.

Australian off-spinner Nathan Lyon takes a splendid return catch to send back Moeen Ali, his bunny in this series, in Adelaide. Lyon has picked up 11 wickets and held the England batsmen on a leash in the first two Tests, giving Australia the liberty of playing only four bowlers.   -  AFP

 

Even in their two away Ashes series in 1990s, against an Australian team far superior to the one they face this series, England collapses were interspersed with performances of fortitude and skill — in both 1994/95 and 1998/99, England won one Test Down Under and came close to winning a second.

Why is there little indication that they will even be able to match these results this time? Before the series, James Anderson said that England would need to score 400 three times to win the series. So far England’s top score in four innings is 302, in the first innings on a docile pitch in Brisbane.

Really, these poor team scores are no surprise. They are a manifestation of a team lacking much Test batting pedigree. Mark Stoneman, James Vince and Malan, England’s opener, number three and number five respectively, have played 21 Tests. Their top individual score in that time is 83. Little wonder that only two England batsmen — Joe Root, twice, and Ben Stokes — have scored centuries in England’s last 12 Ashes Tests.

The bowling has also performed much as expected: frugal without being fierce, the swing of Anderson and Chris Woakes in the second innings at Adelaide apart. As Glenn McGrath and Devon Malcolm showed in their contrasting ways, pace is neither necessary nor sufficient for seamers to thrive in Australia. But, oh boy, does it help. After England’s 149 overs of toil in Australia’s first innings, it took Hazlewood only two balls to deliver a quicker ball. Australia’s three pace bowlers are significantly quicker than any of England’s.

And yet spin bowling might be an even more salient contrast between the sides. So far this series, Moeen Ali has two wickets at 98.00 apiece; Lyon has 11 — including Moeen in all four innings — at 22.72. Lyon is Australia’s single most important bowler, because his unerring accuracy, his ability to deliver long spells, his relish of left-handers and, more than anything, his versatility — his ease shifting between attack and defence, and his dexterity bowling with both the new and old ball alike — allows Australia to field a four-man attack.

Even the Barmy Army, the greatest supporter of the England team, should now be doubtful about the squad’s prospects.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

And so England head to Perth, where they have only won once in their history — having lost their last seven Tests in Australia — and needing to win two, and draw the other, of the final three Tests if they are to retain the Ashes, while Stokes continues his comeback in Australia.

The pertinent question seems not whether England will squander the Ashes, but whether they will do so amid a humiliation to reprise that of 2006/07 or 2013/14. So far, they have produced half a good Test in Brisbane, half a good Test in Adelaide — where the top order was abject in the first innings, and then their lower-middle order was abject in the second. And so, while England are indubitably good enough to win sessions of play, days and even consecutive days, even the Barmy Army are doubting whether they have the fortitude to put enough of these together to win a Test match in Australia.

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