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.