This series continues to challenge analysis. A back-and-forth narrative of swinging fortunes is one thing, but the magnitude of the triumph is hard to gauge. You’d imagine a 2-1 result, alternate wins, and an exciting ending. Instead, England and Australia smashed each other in turn: 169 runs, 405 runs, eight wickets.
How is this going? Are top-notch, but isolated individual performances that set the tone for each match? Or the truth that both sides are poor, and as a result the series has degenerated into a chaotic duel of flimsiness and contradictions?
In a way, Ashes is like its spiritual cousin to 2009, only more random, more spectacular, and even less predictable.
Cardiff exploits aside, England won in 2009 as our batting collapsed only once in the fourth Test at Headingley, while Australia twice – at Lords Stadium and the Oval 1st innings (and 3rd draw) at a shaped pitch. Test at Edgbaston).
This time around, I suspect the ballot box goal will be inextricably linked to Australia’s first innings strike at Trent Bridge. Collapse one more time and the ashes will belong to England. But if Australia can get the situation under control early, the momentum will turn again.
Here’s the detour explaining the apparent bleeding. The problem is that the competition is so fluid that any criticism is reduced to a litany of “ifs,” “buts,” “maybes,” and “warnings.”
To say England are batting well is an exaggeration. You’ve only managed one century so far – Joe Root’s. Neither Lyth nor Buttler has done anything yet. Jonny Bairstow didn’t stay at the crease long enough to change the equation. Alastair Cook looks good, but if he really wants to take back the urn, Trent Bridge could be a good chance for him to end a run of 13 Tests without a century.
Britain, on the other hand, has been hit harder than Australia, which itself must address a growing mid-level crisis. There was a huge gulf between three-year-old Steve Smith and six-year-old Mitchell Marsh. Michael Clarke had four Test innings left before retiring. Is his eye and basic ball sense still good enough to muster a string of save innings in the tank? Top-ranked David Warner owes his team a fortune.
In Australia’s favour, and crucially, James Anderson will not be at Trent Bridge. I wrote on Thursday night that “Australia will win the series if the ‘nervousness’ on their side is found to be a serious injury”. I support it. Trevor Bayliss hinted that Anderson will be replaced by Mark Wood, not Liam Plunkett or Mark Footitt. If so, can he, Stuart Broad, Steve Finn and Moeen Ali take 20 wickets together? Finn was probably Edgbaston’s man of the match and his performance should not be underestimated, but it was Anderson’s first innings 6-47 that broke Australia’s game and set the tone for the game. In the other Test, which England won in Cardiff, Anderson played a quieter game but still led the first innings.
Both Finn and Wood are best used as short, sharp impact bowlers. But if they both play at Trent Bridge, at least one of them will downplay their role. Wood may not even be quite ready to drive – he is recovering from injury and has just had an injection in his left ankle for Nottingham. As Nick Holt pointed out in The Telegraph, Wood “never played three top-flight games in a row in his career”.
The Australian camp will miss Ryan Harris badly. His constant threats, especially to Cook and Root, would change the whole atmosphere. Starc is too unpredictable to pull off the ending and keep the pressure on, leaving Josh Hazlewood to do too much.
In the end, we may have overlooked the most obvious yet mundane of all factors in our attempts to make sense of this wacky series. When England win it means the home side have won seven of the last eight Ashes since 2002/03 – England’s victory in 2010/11 being the only exception. Home field advantage always helps the Ashes. But has it gone from mere asset to – not just a force field, but an invulnerable weapon?