The sight of Shane Watson’s guitar and packed bags in the lobby of his Mohali hotel was a bad sign. David Warner’s face at the press conference after a bad night in Birmingham wasn’t happy. Mickey Arthur’s regular post-dismissal insights didn’t help. Clarke attending Warnie’s charity matches and not Australia’s Champions Trophy matches looked odd. Ed Cowan being dragged from the toilet bowl to bat at three worked badly. Boof Lehmann misremembering facts and sounding like a doofus on radio was poor.
Had an Australian player jumped in a golf kart drunk at that point, he would have ended up driving through the living room wall of a polite churchgoing family.
On the field, they were probably worse. They ended their northern hemisphere summer of suck 7-0 in Tests, and had an early exit from the Champions Trophy that they arrived at as reigning champions.
Their ability to fail so completely on and off the ground was a magnificent act of incompetence.
Eighty-eight days later they started their next Ashes. In that seven million odd seconds of time, Australia has turned itself from an embarrassment to a battering ram.
Now they are 2-0 up. The in and out, left and right bowler has become Thommo 2.0. The captain who had people questioning his leadership in the UK is tripping over hundreds. The batsman who was sent to South Africa like he was a kid being sent to military school is smashing runs. A 31-year-old white-ball pro is looking comfortable. The battered old keeper who was only brought back to keep the boys in line has found form. The spinner who they’ve left out for so many less talented players is probing. And the team that has used more players than a college football team is unchanged.
Mitchell Johnson didn’t play in the last Ashes.
There are some people who would refuse to look past him as the only reason Australia is better, and being that he is a giant squashing England, you can see the logic.
Had he played in the last Ashes, with slower pitches and coming off a match at Delhi where he didn’t take a wicket, having been suspended for the previous match, it’s doubtful he would have made any impact, let alone what he’s done now. In the 11 Tests between his demolition of England in Perth and his demolition in Brisbane, he’s taken no five-wicket hauls, averaged over 40, and couldn’t even squeeze his way into Shane Warne’s 18-players-that-would-get-Australia-back-on-top list. If you’re an attacking player and Shane Warne doesn’t think you’re good enough, you’re really in trouble.
But through the medium of IPL and ODIs, Mitch is back. The Australian setup can claim some of the credit, but since it started mostly after he left their hands, it’s basically a miracle of modern franchising.
But despite the fact that Mitchell Johnson has pwned England in three of four innings, and every second English batsman seems to disintegrate at his very touch, his bowling is not the only reason Australia have improved, even if he has created the slipstream for everyone else.
There is also his batting.
Australia’s tail was never a problem in the last Ashes. But Johnson’s batting has made a strong tail even more dangerous. At the Gabba, he and Haddin changed the game. After three completed innings for both sides, the only Englishman with more runs than him was Ian Bell.
With Siddle and Harris behind him, it’s not as easy to run through Australia. A strong tail can slow down a collapse at its best. But when it’s not even needed like that it’s a yappy nuisance.
Australia have only completed three innings, and in one of them, their top order skipped to the gallows. But their lowest completed total is 295. In the last Ashes series, their first four innings were 280, 296, 128 and 235. Much of that was assisted by ridiculous tenth wicket partnerships, and all four innings had collapses.
In Australia their batsmen are playing with a shocking lack of panic.
Haddin was the man at the Gabba to save Australia. Haddin was the man, thanks to many chances from England, who ensured Australia’s first innings in Adelaide was actually monumental.
In the last Ashes, David Warner averaged 23. Brad Haddin was 22. They’ve both already made more runs in this series than they did in the last series. Both of them looked good even before Mitchell Johnson created havoc. Since then they’ve looked even better. Both like the ball coming on quicker, and the bounce of Australian pitches. Both times when Warner has failed to cash in for the first innings, he’s looked determined to make up for it in the second innings.
As bad as Jonathan Trott looked at the first innings of Brisbane, Michael Clarke looked as bad. The short ball and Stuart Broad had a hold on him. So, a bit like England here, he came out and attacked it. Unlike England here, he did enough to stop it coming at him, and strode to a hundred. Then he backed it up again here.
Even when Johnson wasn’t travelling from village to village burning them down, beating Australia at home when Clarke is in this kind of form is pretty hard. Even South Africa struggled to beat Australia when Clarke was going. Clarke averages 23 more at home than away. That was something easier to expect than anything Johnson would do.
George Bailey was supposedly allergic to red balls, but at this stage he’s not really had them fired at him in pressure often. Even with that, he’s already looked far more important to Australia than Usman Khawaja and Phillip Hughes. Bailey is a middle-order player, a leader, a team-first guy and someone who can play a role. Whether he can continue to target Swann and get away with it, no one will know, but he certainly has the sort of confidence and composure that Hughes and Khawaja never really showed.
Bailey might not have to play Swann for that much more. With his current bowling form of four wickets at 99, and travelling to Perth which (for whatever bizarre reason) seems to treat offspinners and wrist-spinners worse than left arm orthodox bowlers, he could miss the next Test. Monty even already has a five-wicket haul there, if they feel the need to bowl him. Swann’s batting shouldn’t be a threat there considering the way he bats.
It was Anderson who worked over Bailey at the Gabba. But it was one of the few spells where he has looked like the Anderson who beat Australia at Trent Bridge. Since then he has taken 17 wickets at over 40, but perhaps the worst bit is that they take him over 80 balls each. Only once in those Tests has he taken more than two wickets in an innings.
Anderson looked tired at the end of Trent Bridge. He’s looked tired ever since.
With England still not filling the fourth bowling spot since Bresnan left, at Perth they could use their fourth straight different bowler in that spot. It seems a different lifetime since Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan played at the Oval, in a Test that England very nearly won thanks to Australia’s lose-to-win mentality.
England were never in great form during the last Ashes, but they always did enough. Sometimes that was not much, sometimes it was pretty good. But they looked the better side from beginning to end, just one not playing to their best. No one expected them to play at the same level as last time, but it would be hard to believe they could play this much worse so soon.
Australia, on the other hand, which has had more cast changes than the entire run of Cats, is suddenly settled. This was a team where Mitchell Starc was a permanent yo-yo, Nathan Lyon had to watch Agar, Maxwell and Doherty go ahead of him, and Hughes, Cowan, Warner, Watson, Khawaja and Moises Henriques all played in the top seven at certain times. Now, it’s unchanged for the third straight Test.
Lyon has not had to fight off any other spinners. Steve Smith is not worried one bad Test will end him. All three seamers will play if fit. There are no rotations. No shocking omissions. It’s all calm in the Mitchell Johnson slipstream.
Darren Lehmann was thrown in with little more than his personality and some rough notes for the first Ashes series. Andy Flower has been preparing for this 21 hours a day for years. Right now, Flower’s plans seem almost worthless. Boof’s commitment to building team spirit and letting the guys be the guys seems to be paying off. Flower and England will have to change their rigid plans on the run.
England had to play the first Test with the ghost of Trott at three, and he then went home. Their batsmen have been accused of cowardice, and responded with idiocy. Their keeper had to play for his short-term career. Pietersen had his commitment questioned. Their chairman of selectors and director of cricket are leaving. Anderson and Swann look out of sorts. People want them to pick a young quick who’s barely taken a county wicket. Their coach is under serious pressure for the first time. And the captain and team are now looking deep into their souls.
All this and they just got absolutely smashed for the second Test running, and failed to make 400 for the 20th time, despite the fact Mitchell Johnson took only one wicket.
Somehow in 88 days, the Ashes flipped around. Even the Barmy Army’s Mitchell Johnson song doesn’t make sense anymore.
George does the umpire coat stands thing. I talked about lizards and Alastair Cook, again.
I paused so you could celebrate England making 200.
Some, often not those at the ground, have been suggesting that the England batsmen have been backing away from Mitchell Johnson in fear of losing some handy organ. For those people, Joe Root should become a folk hero: the boy who wouldn’t back down. Root wouldn’t fall.
Root didn’t just stand his ground, he giggled at Johnson. As if Johnson was some boy who had told him his mum smelt of peanut butter in the schoolyard.
This was the same Johnson who went through England like they were a soda can and he was one of those supernatural knifes you see advertised on late-night TV. This was the Johnson who had bruised, bullied and battered an entire batting order three innings straight. He was howling at Root, each play and miss made him even more furious, and he rarely missed a chance to snort aggressively or tell Root about it.
Root just continued to giggle.
Jonathan Agnew said on Twitter that Root gave Johnson an angelic smile. The fact he looks young shouldn’t fool anyone. Root is obviously far harder and way too cheeky to ever be that angelic. When Root was confirmed as the person swung at by David Warner in a bar on Australia’s tour of England, no one who knew him was that surprised. He’s known as a pest by many. His face still looks nice because he is young and unburdened by the life of failure and hard work that crushes fresh faces. Even Ricky Ponting once looked like a lovely young boy.
Root wasn’t giggling nervously at Mitch, he genuinely thought it was funny and liked that Johnson was going after him verbally. This wasn’t a small, frail boy up against a category five Kaiju, this was a Test batsman with real skill taking on a snarling wild beast. And Root won.
Kevin Pietersen helped during their partnership but generally let Root hold his own, even in the sledging periods. The only time Pietersen felt the need to get involved was when Watson came in to add to the noise of Johnson’s heavy breathing. One of the many times umpire Kumar Dharmasena got involved in the day (since he doesn’t give no balls any more, he has more time on his hands) was to stop the chat between Pietersen and Watson.
On the whole Pietersen was subdued. Balls that could have been gloriously flamingoed in the air through the two waiting catchers at short midwicket were actually pushed safely along the ground to cover. Except for the balls that needed to be dispatched violently from Steven Smith (to keep such filth on the ground KP would have to work against muscle memory), it was a very disciplined innings from him. But yet again, he got trapped nowhere in a spell from Peter Siddle.
No one trapped Root. He beat the subtle variations of Siddle and Ryan Harris. He handled the stifling frugality of Watson, the odd good delivery from Nathan Lyon. He even managed to not smack the ball to a fielder when Smith bowled long hops.
It was the innings that England fans needed to see. Jonny Bairstow has not shown enough. James Taylor is not in the squad. Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan are pigeonholed for other formats. Nick Compton has disappeared. Jonathan Trott has gone home. England needed to see that one of their new men had passed more than just psychological tests off the field. He needed to stand up to one on it.
It was only Root’s second half-century since his hundred at Lord’s during the previous series. And despite that hundred being a daddy (180), this 87 was probably the best Root has batted in Test cricket. He did it in a situation that has prolonged his side’s misery but maybe given them hope that not all is lost in the future.
Root even took them past 180, which might not seem like much, but when you’re looking up from the gutter, 180 is a long way away.
It’s not overly surprising that Root played Johnson better than most. His reflexes should be pretty much at their best, he is a natural back-foot player and he seems to like fast bowling. The only real time in the innings he looked like he had any trouble was when late on the front foot trying to drive length balls through the off side. Every play and miss made more smoke come from Johnson’s nostrils, but Root seemed less fazed.
The fact he played the shot more than once shows his patience and technique can still be tested but not many Test cricketers of his age would have stood up to the Australia attack under these circumstances for so long. Many a young man has wafted aimlessly outside off stump before that gets beaten out of them through failure.
Root looked so well set that his wicket seemed like a surprise. Unlucky too, as an inside edge on to the thigh pad won’t often end up back with the keeper. His trudge from the crease was very young-boy like, he could barely lift his head up and, when the crowd stood to cheer him, he just flopped his bat up for a millisecond. It showed how much it meant to him, the hundred, the match, the series. But he shouldn’t be ashamed of how he batted today, not ever.
This innings might give England hope that, even if they haven’t found a certain No. 3, they at least have found a quality player who can perform when the others can’t. His innings either gave England a chance at rain on the final day, or kept them on the rack a little longer. It was the innings of a folk hero. Not an actual hero. Not yet.
A gigantic, horned, fire-breathing dragon with seven heads came out of the smoke of the abyss. Its tail capable of sweeping a third of the stars from the sky. Its saliva enough to burn a man alive. Every putrid had breath black smoke emitting from its nostrils. Violence emanated from its apocalyptic eyes.
And a moustache of maliciousness smirking at the many fallen. Mitchell Johnson, savagery and annihilation. From outcast to beast.
Reborn in Mumbai during the IPL. Fed on slogging franchise employees. Stripped of subtlety. Stimulated by flinching opposition to white balls. Pumped up by legends. Then let go to turn England’s sun into darkness, and their moon into blood.
If the job at the Gabba was to break the arm of James Anderson, then at the Adelaide Oval, the point was to break England’s spine.
Alastair Cook had been thrown aside like he was a rag doll the night before. England’s knight. The guardian and chief guardsman barely saw the ball that destroyed his stumps.
Then there was a pause. The monster let England breathe. They fought, won and lost battles with others. Then he re-emerged.
Ben Stokes faced Johnson in much the same way you would a gigantic fire-breathing creature. The sound of the ball hitting the pad screamed “I’m a county batsman, get me outta here”.
Matt Prior almost lost his chest. Matt Prior almost lost his head. Matt Prior lost his wicket. Matt Prior is lost.
Stuart Broad tried something different, rather than standing in the crease and facing a thunderbolt, he complained about shiny bolts on the sightscreen. It gave his innings more minutes than it deserved. Men scrambled around, perhaps sensing that if Mitch couldn’t have Broad, they might be victims of his wrath. Ladders were found. Bolts were covered. And now Broad had run out of reasons to delay it. By this stage, there was no one left at the ground who really expected him to bat out the over, all one ball of it. Broad’s stumps seemed to detonate before the ball arrived there. Broad was off outside off stump, far from the carnage, far from okay.
England’s over of death, destruction and some other terrible fate had cost them three wickets for the addition of no runs.
Next over, Graeme Swann played the best-weighted shot of his life and ran a three, leaving the only worthy protector of the realm, Ian Bell, to stand guard. The following over, after another brilliantly weighted three from Swann, Bell let him face the last two balls. Earlier, Swann had spooned one safely from near on his throat. This time he didn’t wait for anything at him, he just flung his bat and was caught in slips by a ball that might have de-handed a club cricketer.
Then came Anderson.
Jimmy can be stubborn. Jimmy can survive. Jimmy will slash past catchers. Jimmy can get off strike. Jimmy can annoy.
In this innings, it’s unknown if Jimmy could even open his eyes. He went at the ball with all the confidence of a man who had seen all his team-mates eaten alive and the knowledge that his only protection was an expired library card. His hands were around the bat handle as if it were a live serpent. His middle stump died a tragic death. He was stared at and mocked. Silently. Perhaps in tribute to Anderson asking Johnson to quiet down in Perth three years ago.
Monty Panesar got a reprieve when the beast left the crease to polish the skulls of those he had already vanquished. His innings of tough, tail-end squatting was 33 balls in when the beast came back. He ended up facing 35.
If you visit Adelaide Oval tonight, all you’ll find is chunks of English batsmen. Perhaps you’ll also hear the howls of the damned, and the occasional snap of stump.
“Some say the end is near. Some say we’ll see Armageddon soon. I certainly hope we will. I sure could use a vacation from this” screamed Maynard James Keenan, lead singer of Tool. The end is a while away. England are finding their Armageddon is taking too long. There are no vacations planned for English batsmen. Just seven more innings of potential butchery. In three short innings, Johnson has virtually torn the Ashes off them.
You could argue that Mitchell Johnson is not actually a gigantic, horned, fire-breathing dragon with seven heads. You could also argue that, if he were, he couldn’t have done much more damage today.
There is something comforting about the Adelaide oval, without any cricket being played, the commentators would still be able to fill many hours of their time here.
Thus, I have devised a game. A drinking game, a beautiful and traditional game, to entertain you as you are drowing in commentary cliche.
Mention of the hill, cathedral, AFL, renovation
If Les Burdett is uttered by Ian Chappell
Any time the word beautiful is used when talking about the ground
Short square boundaries
Batting friendly pitch
Any reference to Darren Lehmann in any way
Every time the scoreboard is mentioned with any of the terms ‘classic, heritage listed, pretty, olden’ (from @ABRFOTO)
If Les Burdett is mentioned by someone other than Chapelli
Anyone reminiscing about how the ground used to be (three fingers if they say the word traditional or proper)
A mention of the out the back of the members and fun
An image of someone drunk with the boof or dizzy statue
Mention of Nathan Lyon being the former groundskeeper, two fingers (from @_halshaw)
Glenn McGrath catch, one finger. Two if it’s mentioned that he caught it in the wrong hand. (from @LiebCricket)
Long straight boundaries
Les Favell’s name
Victor Richardson’s name
Drop in pitch talk
A mention of the grass banks
If someone brings up Chapell’s bar (if it’s followed by Chappelli saying how he’d rather have a bar than a stand named after him, that’s another 3 fingers)
The phrase ‘South Australian legend’
A sighting of Graham Cornes.
Victor Richardson gates.
If someone tells the Paul Collingwood super slide story.
A mention of Warne and fifth day’s. Or England’s first innings total in that Test. (both is downing your drink).
Moreton bay figs (@tomcstandard)
Down your drinks
If Chappell mentions both Les Favell and Les Burdett in the one anecdote.
All appearances, or mentions of, Nugget.
A mention of the out the back of the members with the word marquees used
For River Torrens or Memorial Drive references
Drink a bottle of something you’d never usually drink
Any reference to David Hookes in any way
If someone says Newlands is prettier.