Typical: Christmas evening, you turn on the television and it’s another bloody repeat. Although in fairness to England, pick through the dental records of their latest Ashes capitulation and you might just be able to identify a few distinguishing features. And above all the defining quality of their Boxing Day fiasco at Melbourne was the sense of hopelessness and predestination: of a team and a generation whose narrative arc has finally run dry.
There was a time when England collapses had a kind of fascinating car-crash quality to them. These days, by contrast, they feel strangely banal: tedious, overfamiliar, predictable, like a recurring anxiety dream. The openers disappear early. Joe Root does something pointless and defiant. All of a sudden you’re back at your old school. Someone in the middle order plays a stupid shot. You turn over the exam paper, but there’s nothing on it. The No 9 hits an insolent 25. Suddenly you realise you’re totally naked. James Anderson walks off the field, nought not out. You wake, breathless and more tired than when you went to bed.
It takes some effort to make your biggest encounter of all feel like a trite inconsequence, but somehow this England have managed it. Has a live series ever felt more dead? Have two theoretically well-matched teams (just look at the world rankings; Australia and England are separated by just a single point) ever produced such a calamitous mismatch? Has an England middle order ever played three worse shots than the shots Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow produced on the first afternoon of the third Test? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Certainly there were few expectations when Root departed shortly after lunch to leave England 82 for four, a familiar quandary. Yet as Stokes and Bairstow launched a squally counter-attack, other futures briefly presented themselves. Twenty-eight runs came in the seven overs before drinks, including a huge six by Stokes off Nathan Lyon.
All of a sudden, an opening. The ball was ageing. England were one good, solid hour from rebalancing the game.
At which point Cameron Green returned to the attack, hanging the ball outside off stump, accumulating dots, daring Stokes to play the big shot.
Lyon bowled very straight with a tight leg-side field, accumulating dots, daring Bairstow to play the big shot. Six overs cost just five runs. Has a plan ever been simpler or more transparent? In a way, those next few overs were England’s last few years in microcosm. You hit a rough patch, and you either endure or you flip out and do the bad thing. And over the last four or five years England have essentially turned doing the bad thing into a sort of performance art.
Stokes had already tried to upper-cut Green over the slips a few overs earlier and narrowly escaped. Hey, why not try it again? After he had steered the ball meekly to gully, Buttler arrived and immediately seemed to lose heart. His second ball jagged back and bounced over his stumps.
Mitchell Starc got one to leap off a length. Pat Cummins got one to die a little. And so, in the last over before tea, with the score 128 for five and Mark Wood the next man in, Buttler hit the ejector seat.
It was a terrible shot. It would have been a terrible shot even if he’d nailed Lyon into the crowd for six. It was the shot you play when your conscious brain is too tired to compute the knotted logistics of staying in, and the id simply takes over. It was the shot of a man out of form and out of rhythm, who in fatigue and desperation had convinced himself that he could regain his form and rhythm with one sweet contact. Bairstow at least had the excuse of batting with the tail, but in trying to cut a ball from Starc that was on about leg-stump, he too deserves his share of ignominy.
There is a theory out there that these are simply bad players, who have proved it again and again over time. But talent is a dynamic thing. Success is not a straight line. Players improve and learn and founder and regress and there is nothing inevitable about any of it. On talent alone, Stokes-Bairstow-Buttler could have been one of the all-time great England middle-orders. An axis upon which an entire era could have been built.
Given defined roles in a confident team, they won a World Cup final pretty much on their own.
Instead, this series feels like the end of the road for them as a trio.
Haunted in the field and hounded with the bat, Buttler looks in desperate need of a break, perhaps even a permanent break. Stokes looks physically and mentally undercooked. Bairstow is surely on the last of his last chances. All three are over 30 and nearer the end than the beginning. And for all they have achieved together with a white ball, with a red ball the feeling of loss is inescapable: a promise not fulfilled, three pristine talents misused, mismanaged and forsaken.