Ryan Harris’s knee was just one nightmare for Darren Lehmann. Behind his folksy Uncle Boof façade, there is a coach. Coaches worry, coaches fret, and coaches worry about the dark side they can’t control. No amount of coaching cones will stop your biggest fears. They might have called it that, they might have called it SWOT, or challenges, but they had a list of worst-case scenarios. When Boof has knocked back his last team bonding beverage, and he shuts those bleary eyes, the coaching nightmares come to him.
In playing 27 Tests, Harris overcame South Australia’s on and off field decade of shame, Australia’s quest to find the next great young fast bowler, cricket statistics when he became the first quick to take over 100 wickets despite debuting over 30 and confounded medical science and common cricket sense. But his synovial fluid was all out of miracles.
Harris might not have played in the first Test, actually, knees or not, he probably would not have. But Harris meant that Australia had four frontline bowlers capable of worrying England. Harris averages 20 against England, and would have been on the bench. And Harris is pretty much an on-field bowling coach. When Mitchell Johnson bowls with Harris, he averages 20.71 and takes a wicket every 38 balls. So this series, Australia will have no use of two men who when paired together won 10 of their 16 matches with only three losses.
Harris was the first casualty of Dad’s Army, but Chris Rogers is another. Rogers makes solid 50s. He makes them a lot. Perhaps he should turn more into game changing scores. But it’s not a weakness, his fielding is a weakness. Rogers was never a great fielder, and never a mega cricket athlete, but when Ian Bell flicked the ball on the leg side early in his innings, Rogers moved like a man his age, and he failed to catch the ball.
His opening partner averages 22 in England. David Warner has an average of 41 when not playing Tests in Australia, and that includes scoring over a third of his runs away from home against South Africa in three Tests when South Africa refused to catch him. His two Ashes hundreds were both at home in the third innings when Australia were well in front in the game. Here he struggled. There was no Warner aggression, no stunning slaps that changed the bowler’s plans, day or career. Just a strike-rate of 40 and an edge into the slips.
England believed Steven Smith was a weakness at three, or they at least wanted him to think it. Australia’s batting has been weak for a very long time. Their top order has been saved by one-off performances and tail end heroes. Smith at No. 3 has the chance to change that. With Michael Clarke behind him Australia could finally have the sort of top four that they can rely on. But in his first outing, when well set and in form, he was out thought by a bowler the Australians think is a part timer, and a captain they mock for being boring.
Adam Voges was brought out for the Ashes because he knew his game, had been around, and was a solid guy that could be relied upon. After his start, with the close of play encroaching, he tried to play a ball not full or short enough, and it bobbled off the bat, but not in the hands of short cover. It was he sort of shot you expect more from someone 25, not 35. From that moment Australia was never in control of their innings again.
Watson was left with the tail. On Twitter, #Wattolotto was in full flow. Watson earned his way to stumps. But the next day, the ball hit his pad. Cricket’s most consistent impact.
Watson walks slowly up to Nathan Lyon. Watson is coy, yet no one who has ever seen him play thinks he won’t review it. Lyon and he chat, Watson listens, but is having his own internal conversation. He reviews, there are ironic cheers. The ball might have hit him just outside offstump, the ball might have been high. But it’s a risk. For the first time, he hasn’t demanded it, he hasn’t pleaded, he’s just asked. And hoped.
The predatory steady-cam operator was already out on the ground before the DRS had confirmed Watson’s fate. It was one of Watson’s best wrong reviews. Watson had not left the square and was already being mocked by the world. Watson is in his fifth Ashes, he was Australia’s last batsman, and this might be his last Test.
Brad Haddin’s form, with the gloves, with the bat, is poor. In the first innings he had 17 byes, he’s added seven more in the second innings. In the nets the day before the Test he batted as if an inner ear infection was affecting his balance. On day three, he was a 50/50 proposition of laying wood on the ball. His runs came from edges, slashes and one slog. At one stage, without seemingly being able to hit the ball with his original bat, he had that bat replaced, and instantly found the edge twice, losing his wicket.
Then there was the Joe Root chance. Including byes, his score and Root’s score, Haddin is currently minus 136 in this match. The analytical way of sorting out the Root catch would be to show Haddin what he did so he could self-correct himself. The Uncle Boof way would probably have been to delete all footage from Cricket Australia hard drives and buy Haddin a beer.
That drop was like teenagers deciding to sleep into the abandoned cabin in the woods. The wicket was slow, but Australia were fast. If Haddin takes what is only slightly removed from a regulation catch, Australia might have got in front.
Instead, the two Mitchells are not used to crush the will of a young middle order, but instead bowl at Root until time seems to stand still. Well, each ball does. Each Australian thunderbolt sticks in the pitch and says, “Ah, you again. We knew we’d see you here, but we had no idea you’d be this powerfully slow, and, we, um, cannot, argh, get , come on, any, ugh, pace…”
It’s India, it’s Port Elizabeth, it’s the UAE, it’s Australia’s bête noir. Slow wickets seem to have a consciousness that infest Australian cricket minds and lay eggs of confusion.
Those eggs were hatched by Australia’s gamble in doubling down on Mitch. Before Mitchell Johnson won the Ashes and Mitchell Starc won the World Cup, there was always a hesitation in playing the two of them together. On their best days they leave a trail of destruction behind them. On their worst days they do the same thing. Both Mitchs went at over four runs an over in the first innings. Starc took wickets and Johnson kissed his cap at fine leg as the crowd ironically cheered his wicketless hundred. Perhaps Haddin’s old hands could have saved them, but instead, they bowled for longer than they wanted, on a pitch they didn’t understand, leaking runs and pressure until eventually Johnson’s aura and Starc’s ankle went.
Three days into the Ashes when Darren Lehmann lays his head to rest he sees bad things. Ryan Harris will never bowl again, Chris Rogers looks slow in the field, Warner and Smith are yet to prove themselves in England, Voges played a rash young man’s shot, Watson might have played his last review, Haddin has played, missed and dropped, the slow pitch has eaten them and their double Mitch dream team is leaking. None are nightmares. All are realities.
Starc has come back to bowl, gingerly at times, held together with jabs, tape and Lehmann’s love and affection.
Australia’s Ashes hopes are currently more Starc’s ankles than Harris’ knee. By stumps tomorrow, they might have a fresh diagnosis.o