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The Two Englands

Michael Clarke walks onto the Cardiff ground the day before the Investec Ashes starts. He stops halfway to talk to the assistant groundsmen. Soon Darren Lehmann joins him. They get down on their hands and knees, they really look at the pitch. Both ends. Clarke jumps up and down at times. Lehmann limps along, puts his coffee down, and gets as low as his body allows him.

Clarke walks down and talks to the head groundsman, Keith Exton. They chat for a bit, before Clarke rejoins his coach. There is a clear worry about the pitch.

Joe Root did not play a pretty innings at Cardiff. He was not in control. His innings could have veered off the road at any time. But it did not. The Brad Haddin drop almost gave him a license to counterattack, and he threw everything he had at Australia. It was ugly and gutsy, and he ended up as the one hundred of the match. He ended up as the Man of the Match.

Who needs a top order when Root will save the day, Ben Stokes slapped like a kid in a fairytale, and Moeen Ali is laughing it up with the tail. England made over 400, at over four an over, and turned Australia’s monstrous quicks into plush toys.

Then they just needed to be clever, and patient, with the ball. They watched Australia walk the plank against Moeen while being aggressive to the point of self-parody and get trapped in a 17-38 middling score of mediocrity. England just needed to execute their plans and rack up Australia’s errors.

With a lead, they were always in charge, and with Root saving them again, they were more in charge. Counterattacking again. Saving the day again. Ian Bell, one of their most misfiring members of the tragic top order, stood up as well. It gave them a total that Australia could only ever fail at.

At nearly one hundred with only one wicket down, was the only time that Australia ever had a realistic chance of winning, and it was no real chance at all. Alastair Cook discovered his inner Mike Brearley and every single move he made seemed to work. This was not England sitting back and waiting for a win, this was a proactive captain rocking team funky with their new England magic.

Australia might have dropped an important catch; they might have been nullified by a dead pitch. They could have lost Mitchell Starc, lost faith in Shane Watson, lost control from Mitchell Johnson, gifted wickets to a bowler they do not rate, and even given up their many starts, but they could not argue that they had been smashed in the face in every single way it mattered. The slow pitch and England had destroyed them.

The cheer of the full Cardiff crowd at the last wicket was louder than any complaining about the pitch.

England had played their perfect ‘New England’ Test. They had upset the favourites. They had attacked. Their five-man bowling attack was working as a team. Their eight batsmen line up looked freakishly long. It was a golden Test of new England. They were not expected to win, they were not expected to be this perfect. Cardiff was bathed in the golden light of their magnificence.

1-0.

England lost the toss at Lord’s. But when David Warner lost his mind, they knew that patience would work against this Australian line-up. The Australian batting line-up had been misfiring on or off for over ten years. One wicket would bring in the comically out of form Clarke. Two and it was Adam Voges in his fifth Test. Three was Mitchell Marsh on his comeback and in his first Ashes Test. Four and Peter Nevill was playing his first Test, in an Ashes, at Lord’s. There was no reason to panic.

After tea on the first, Smith was still there.

Cook tries Broad. Then Moeen. Then Root. Then Anderson. Smith is on 82 for Broad’s over, one ball into Anderson’s over he has his hundred.

Cook had placed eight men on the off side, there is only a mid-on. Anderson drops short outside off stump and Smith shuffles over to the off side and hoicks a pull shot into the turf to the right of mid-on to bring up his hundred. Cook watches on as Smith swings his bat in celebration, points at the crowd and receives a bear hug from Chris Rogers.

England could suggest that Smith has still not succeeded in English type conditions, but until they prepare some, it means very little.

It was Stokes in a quality Ben Stokesian spell of aggression and intent that forced the error from Smith that went to Bell. But Bell did not take it. There was not another chance until the next day.

Broad was the only one of their bowling pack who bowled well, and Australia showed patience against him. Root was the only other multi wicket-taker. Their five-man attack suddenly looked like a tired James Anderson, a fully functioning Stuart Broad, a lost Mark Wood, a desperate Ben Stokes and an easily milked Moeen Ali. There were no obvious four frontline bowlers, and at times, it was hard to remember how they did well in the previous Test.

They could not maintain pressure, they could not take their chances, they could not hit their spots, they could not rely on Australia, they could not, they could not.

566 was the final total. It could have been a million.

When Adam Lyth jerked himself at his second ball, England’s second ball, England’s second ball of the second Test, England’s weakness was opened up again. Gary Ballance was blown away. Bell played a bad shot to a super ball. Root tried to counterpunch again, this time Australia caught him. That was a big difference. Root was not there to make the bad start fade away.

The Australian bowlers who had been stuck in treacle at Cardiff were suddenly dangerous. The two main Mitchs were not leaking runs, they were taking wickets. Six years on from Johnson’s last time at Lord’s he was exorcising his demons and reheating England’s. Together with Starc and Josh Hazlewood they bowled, fast, full and swung the ball. It woke up Lord’s, it terrified England. England did not have a top order, they had a topless order. Bare, naked, afraid.

There was calm, and a rearguard, as Stokes attacked while Cook defended, their assured batting mocked their top order on this still flaccid wicket. With some luck, they could have batted to until tea, set up Jos Buttler and Moeen, frustrated the short fuse Australians. Instead there were two inside edges.

The inside edge is a peculiar thing as it comes from a technical mistake, but it always feels unlucky. Inside edges can go anywhere. But Stokes and Cook both found their stumps. Maybe it was unlucky, maybe it was a technical mistake, maybe it was the pitch just slightly deteriorating.

It was also one of Australia’s changes. In Cardiff, Watson’s bowling lacked his usual tightness, and had his normal lack of wicket-taking. By the time Marsh had Cook out, he had taken as many wickets in away Ashes Test as Watson ever had. With him bowling well, and Nevill taking his chances, Australia just looked like a better team.

And when Stokes went just before lunch, England lost their seventh straight session of cricket. They lost their eighth just after that when their long batting order batted much like their soft top order, and the follow-on was never even properly flirted with.

Then they bowled again. The million-behind-third-innings bowling trudge. If Anderson was not tired already, he was tired of this. He was tired when another catch went down in his now inconsistent slip cordon. He was tired as he watched the other bowlers bowl these pointless overs as England rested him as best he could. He looked very tired for a man with no wickets to his name.

Cook and his new found flair was trying to find ways to stop Smith. With an atom bomb not at his disposal, Cook could not even stop Smith from doing a draw shot. Rogers got dizzy from counting his own runs. Warner bashed third-innings runs. Marsh seemed to hit Moeen into the stand with the back of his bat. And even Clarke found form.

And then England had to bat again. It might have been a flat pitch, but it was anything but a flat attack. Five sessions is a long time. It is longer without a top order. It is a long time against a team with Mitchell Johnson in it. Or with Starc. Or with five bowlers.

It turned out two sessions was a long time.

In the last innings it didn’t matter that England batted until No. 8, as they never actually batted. It didn’t matter that Moeen had taken regular wickets. It didn’t matter they had a five-man attack. It didn’t matter how positive they were. It didn’t matter that Australia had a debutant at Lord’s. It didn’t matter that Cook had improved as a captain. It didn’t matter that they had come in unchanged. It didn’t matter that they won the last Test. It didn’t matter that Australia’s middle order was untested. It didn’t matter that the pitch was slow. It didn’t matter that Australia still had flaws. None of it mattered in this innings, or in this Test.

England had been to the mountain top in Cardiff, and without even enjoying the view they toppled straight back down at Lord’s. If Cardiff was perfect and golden, Lord’s was violent and bloody.

It turned out two Tests was a long time.

1-1.

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Australia’s trip to number one without a top six

David Warner didn’t move his feet. Not for the first time. Chris Rogers was unlucky. At the wrong age to do that. Michael Clarke fended at the moving ball. Easier to do at No. 4 than No. 5. Shane Watson planted the target on the front pad. England found it for the first time this series. George Bailey was dangling outside off. People already murmuring about him there.

Brad Haddin flies in. Situation sorted. Again. Again. Again. Again.

Beneath the Big Bash big talk, away from the CA Twitter account’s split personality and far from ads for summer’s biggest dress up party, Cricket Australia still take cricket seriously. It may not always seem that way as the ‘Ashes pashes’ are on the big screen but Cricket Australia has been pretty consistent on one thing, it wants the team to be No. 1. It actually want to be No. 1, No. 1 and No. 1. In all formats, the best team on earth. A cynic may suggest that it’ll make for better marketing copy, but it’s still a worthy, if hard to attain, ambition.

Clarke used his newspaper column to reiterate that this team wanted to be No. 1 straight after Perth. That’s when captains speak, after the game, when the result dictates the conversation. Had Clarke been asked to speak when Australia’s fifth first-innings wicket fell, No. 1 would have been a sizable distance from his mind. The Australia top order have consistently been awful in the first innings. Only in Adelaide were they anything near passable. In every other innings they’ve been poor.

Then Haddin comes in. Technically Haddin has batted at No. 7. But in real terms he’s batted one, two, three, four, five, six and seven. Add a cape and a moustache and Mitchell Johnson may not win Man of the Series.

Haddin as the permanent saviour was enough to win the Ashes. And it may be enough to win 5-0. But to be No. 1, you are probably going to need a top order. And Australia’s next series is against a bowling attack of Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn.

Beating England, while that team is in emotional freefall, at home is just a step in the right direction, not anything more. Australia were naked in a gutter a few months back, and they haven’t won three consecutive Test series in a row since the infamous summer of kidding themselves against West Indies, Pakistan and New Zealand. This summer there are far more good signs than back in 2009-10. That’s all they are. This isn’t some finished product that has honed its game around the world and is ready to tussle at the top, it’s an old team with a good bowling attack that’s in great form.

Form is, as many cricketers have told us, temporary.

“Australia have the best bowling attack in the world.” It’s something you may have heard more than once. Lazy commentators say it, showing that they don’t follow the cricket outside of Australia. Coaches have said it, despite the fact it is their job to know how good other countries are. It’s not the best bowling attack in the world (unless South Africa has been voted off the planet). But it’s really good.

Peter Siddle has improved virtually every part of his bowling. He is a leader and a worker, who never gives up. Nathan Lyon was the boy no one wanted. Considering the menagerie of misfits used as spinners before (and during) his time, surely only a mad scientist selector would change him now. If Johnson keeps bowling the way he is, he may actually explode, as will most batsmen who face him. He could also lose form and confidence and end up sitting on the bench for an IPL franchise. It’s all possible. Ryan Harris may not be long for this game. Then again, who really thought he’d play nine straight Test matches against England.

Harris is the only one for who age is a concern. Australia also have James Pattinson (Test average of 26), Pat Cummins (pace like fire, body like paper) and Nathan Coulter-Nile (pace – tick, swing – tick) hanging around.

So it may not be the best on earth, but it’s a pretty damn scary attack to bump into on a dark night. With Johnson in this form, it’s nuclear.

India and South Africa are the No.1 and No. 2-ranked sides in the world. Even if India had won in South Africa, their first overseas series since they were in Australia two years ago, they were too many points behind to go top.

India look good right now, but may be a bowler short away from home. R Ashwin is averaging more than five wickets a Test and was just dropped against South Africa. Pakistan were ranked fourth before this series. In recent times they drew with South Africa, and before that they drew with Zimbabwe. Essentially they play in the same manner Saeed Ajmal does press conferences.

England are so bad right now, the hashtag #pomnishambles has been invented.

So, that only leaves South Africa. They are the best team on earth. They have beaten or drawn all their series since losing, to the then-No. 1 side, Australia in ’09. In their last seven series, they have won six and drawn once. After Gary Kirsten took over, they became the team that they flirted with being at most times since readmission.

To beat them, you have to shove Graeme Smith aside. Confuse Hashim Amla. Hope AB de Villiers is tired. Then survive the bowling attack. And do it all quickly in a shortened series.

If Australia do win 5-0, in the history of cricket it will probably be the worst batting line-up to have ever swept such a long series.

Coming into Melbourne, Chris Rogers was a 36-year-old with a Test average of 31.88 – pretty much the same average that Ed Cowan had when he lost his place. Then England dropped Rogers at the MCG and he made his second hundred and cemented his place for South Africa. He’s obviously not rubbish, but at his age, he doesn’t need balls bouncing back through his legs on to the stumps. Chances are, no matter how good his career goes, at his age, he’ll be a batting coach or commentator by the next time Australia are No. 1 in Tests.

David Warner’s form has been amazing, in the second innings when Australia have been smashing the ball everywhere against a Mitch Johnson-ed England. His first innings have shown promise, but he’s never gone through. He still has no overseas Test hundreds and in the one second innings when the pressure was on, he failed. After being dropped. His footwork is always going to get negative feedback but he’s never going to fix it. In South Africa it will be tested every day.

Shane Watson is batting at No. 3 for Australia, with a Test average of 36.56, and you can see why Darren Lehmann may not have backed him completely as a batsman. It still makes more sense for Watson to bat at No. 5 or No. 6, but then Australia would have no one to bat at three. In the first innings of this series, he has been woeful, but he made a happy slap hundred in Perth, and guided Australia home at Melbourne. Still important, still frustrating, and still a massive lbw candidate.

Michael Clarke has a bad back, and a sensational home record. If he can recreate that away from home, and his back stays good, he’ll be a good player to ride to No. 1.

Steven Smith is one of three Trent Woodhill (a see ball, hit ball batting coach) disciples who have made hundreds this series. He made another in England, and gave another way. In India, as his team-mates cried into their cornflakes, he came in and showed guts and feet. Here was another hundred that proved how tough he is. But he’s still only averaging 37.41 in Test cricket. It’s because Smith either makes runs, or fails. There is no in between. His bowling, and fielding are both useful but, at No. 5, he needs to make it as a batsman. He is probably a six, and maybe so is Watson, and it looks like Bailey might be as well.

George Bailey may not even make it to South Africa. Or Clarke could retire and he becomes captain. One is more likely than the other.

There was no shock as Australia lost early wickets. It was green, Australia had been put in, and throughout this Ashes (and the entire mega Ashes) Australia have struggled to score in the first innings. There was no shock that Haddin saved them either. It may have been moving around, and in his bad times he would have nicked off playing a shocking shot, but that wouldn’t have felt natural in this series. It all happened exactly as it has for five Tests.

Australia failed, England failed harder. Haddin prevailed.

Australia are old, have a frail batting line up and are relying on a 36-year-old wicketkeeper more than any team should. They shouldn’t get to No. 1, but then they shouldn’t have won this series without a fully functioning top six. Even with a fully functioning Brad Haddin behind it.

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Alternate Ashes timeline

In another timeline, Alastair Cook just pushed a single to get Jonathan Trott on strike. Then Trott tickled a leg-side ball from Jon Holland around the corner, taking another one, as England won the series 3-1. Michael Clarke looks lost. Shane Watson is not there.

On this timeline, Watson burped a ball to deep square from Monty Panesar to move Australia ever closer to 5-0. Watson and Clarke embrace like brothers. Cook looks lost. Trott is not there.

It might seem completely inconceivable right now that Australia could have ever lost this series but, considering how much has gone right for them this series, it is not exactly science fiction.

Things have consistently not gone wrong for Australia.

For instance, they might not have picked Mitchell Johnson. Despite good white-ball form, and even with Kevin Pietersen and Trott flinching in the UK, Johnson might not have played had Mitchell Starc or James Pattinson been fit. Johnson was suspended on the Test tour of India earlier in the year, didn’t fit Australia’s plan of pressure through subtle movement. His batting is handy, but Australia’s tail did okay without him. So, had there been other options, or if Australia decided to move on, Johnson wouldn’t have played at the Gabba.

Without Johnson, Australia would not be 4-0.

Brad Haddin also could have been dropped. While he kept well in the UK, he also averaged 22. He is 36, it was his first real series back in the team, and he struggled to make an impact. The major reason he was brought back was to calm relations in the team but Darren Lehmann handled that quite well himself. Australia could have looked at it and decided that, with Wade averaging roughly the same and a better conversion rate for hundreds, it was time to bring him back in and let him take more of a leadership role.

Without Haddin, Australia would not be 4-0.

David Warner has made a lot of runs in second-innings knocks with little pressure. Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris have been good but have not really been tested in fifth and sixth spells. Nathan Lyon has been serviceable, but that’s easier to do with Johnson decapitating people at the other end. Watson has only passed 22 once in the first innings. George Bailey has barely played a proper Test innings yet and Chris Rogers would have been in far more pressure coming into this Test had it not been for the scoreline.

And none of that even takes into account the possibility of an injury befalling Harris, or Watson, or even Clarke.

Instead Trott went home. Graeme Swann retired. Matt Prior was dropped. And Cook looks under pressure.

James Anderson looks tired and beaten. Stuart Broad hasn’t bowled another great spell since the Gabba. Ian Bell has lost the magic he had in the home Ashes. Pietersen can’t seem to please anyone. Michael Carberry hasn’t gone on to make any real impact on the series despite looking okay most of the time. Joe Root’s constant travels around the batting order and his propensity to waft have had him in trouble. Tim Bresnan is not the same bowler he was three years ago.

And whether real or imagined, it seemed like every single decision that Alastair Cook made in this Test went against him. Whereas Michael Clarke probably made a mistake at the toss, ended up with a 51-run deficit, and still won by eight wickets.

In another timeline Prior takes the first catch, Cook takes the second and England win comfortably. But that never ever looked possible today. Just like all series, if something could go right for England, they made a mistake to ensure it didn’t.

And Australia have ridden the many gift horses into the sunset.

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