Open a door on an Advent calendar and you find a pleasant surprise. A pep-up to put a spring in your step in the approach to Christmas.
Unfortunately, the ECB’s autumnal supermarket sweep went a little awry and England have ended up in Australia with a defective calendar, containing chocolatey treats only behind numbers three and four. The other doors? Empty.
England’s collapse from 150 for two to 236 all out was badly timed for the UK television audience. Eggs-over-easy from Dawid Malan and Joe Root while everyone was in bed; a Jenga-esque collapse in time for morning coffee and mince pies. Stragglers might have made it down to see those two stalwarts Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson at 10 and 11, get a battering from Mitchell Starc.
No country for old men, this.
The trusty Malan and Root had done well enough on Friday to see England through until the lightning storm wiped out the rest of the day. And for the first session on Saturday there was hope, enough to string a shiny bauble on a eucalyptus. England’s two best batters at ease on a nice batting wicket. Eyes in, sun out, Australia’s bowlers awkwardly not quite right. Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood missing, Steve Smith having to search for inspiration, not just reach. Root tucked into Nathan Lyon, Malan did his Malan thing through force of intensity and a sprig of luck. The partnership had grown to 128 as they drifted in for the first break.
Maybe then, you breakfasted with confidence – if it wasn’t for that nagging doubt at the back of your mind. What if Root gets out? What if Root gets out? The answer came soon enough, and it was quite as calamitous as you had imagined. In the fifth over after high tea, Root suspiciously eyed up Cameron Green and edged him to first slip where Smith was waiting. Seven runs later, and after six successive maidens, Dawid Malan followed, cutting a fat full one from Starc into the waiting paws of the prowling Smith.
From there it was only a matter of time. A jumpy Ollie Pope charged at Lyon but could only collar him to short leg, moments after successfully reviewing something almost identical; a chastened Jos Buttler chased a wide one in search of redemption; Chris Woakes, after a flurry of flighty boundaries, was also undone by Lyon. Ollie Robinson was lbw to a ripper to give Lyon his third, and England their 48th Test duck of the year – the record of 54 is definitely within reach.
Ben Stokes played on, selflessly, after having a slog in vain. Then the two old warriors ducked and dived heroically before Broad was finally caught having a swing. And that was that – 8-86 in little more than a session and a stretch. The only relief came when David Warner and Marcus Harris sprinted off the pitch: Australia were not going to enforce the follow-on.
But the relief will be short-term – the punishment just suspended until the light fades on Sunday evening and the flash of the pink ball returns to haunt English dreams. And the fragility of the batting lineup is not just an advent problem but a long-term condition, one with no real solution in sight.
As Root eyes up the most runs in a calendar year, needing another 182 before New Year’s Eve to beat Mohammad Yousuf, he is not just the best batter in the team, but the best in the world. But he remains alone on his celestial plane, quietly contemplating his lack of an Ashes century.
Malan has proved to be just the doughty fighter and technician England wanted when they sent for him in a tight spot against India, but there is no other ready-made Test batter out there. Moeen Ali, who surely would have played here if he’d toured, has had enough.
England tried giving youth its head earlier in the year. Dom Sibley was dispatched back to county pastures. James Bracey had a miserable time. The two spare batters on the Ashes tour, Dan Lawrence and Zak Crawley, are works in progress. Lawrence hasn’t quite swashed as his buckle suggests and Crawley has never again touched the heights of his magnificent 267 against Pakistan, though his technique – unlike any of the rest bar Root – did receive the blessing of the late Ted Dexter.
The Lions squad contained Josh Bohannon, Old Trafford’s punchy little street fighter who has pulled Lancashire out of numerous holes, but he has flown home with the rest. Two other Lions remain in Australia: Tom Abell with Brisbane Heat, and the Cricket Writers’ Club young cricketer of the year, Harry Brook, with Hobart Hurricanes – but plucking them from the Big Bash into the Ashes would be quite the challenge.
The answer will inevitably be bigger than any short-term solutions. A newfound respect for county cricket and space to breathe in the player schedules would be a start. In the meantime, England have a match to save, a tour to complete and a scoreline to write. It might not be pretty.