Who doesn’t love a good holiday-season ritual? Weeping through the end credits of Scrooged. Sousing mince pies with brandy cream, and eating them for breakfast. Staying up late on Christmas Day so you can follow the start of the Boxing Day Test, even though England are already two down in the series and you’ve started to remember why the Ashes is cricket’s most consistently overrated contest.
It’s such a comfort, in our turbulent modern times, to have these traditions to cling to. If there’s a spectre at the feast, a fly in the eggnog, a potential choking hazard in the plum pudding, is only the sense that a team with England’s considerable resources ought to be putting up a better fight than this. After all, they’re not not just letting themselves and their fans down. Think of the Australian team, who have been waiting all year for a chance to prove themselves after losing to India. Beating this England side isn’t going to prove anything.
Still, it’s all part of the routine: that frustrating feeling that England really ought to have a chance this time, that Australia aren’t the force they appear to be. One more stop on our four-yearly tram-ride around the ’burbs of Ashes nostalgia. This tour is already trying its hardest to plagiarise its predecessors: the past two Tests have riffed on Ashes infamy and strung a series of England’s greatest hits into the sporting equivalent of a jukebox musical.
To open the show, an embarrassing error on the very first ball of the series that sets the tone and presages England’s ultimate doom. We’ll have Rory Burns perform that one. And why not have England show up at the Gabba Test with an underpowered bowling attack? Hmm, trickier. We’d have to convince them to leave out their two best seam… oh wait, they have.
It’s not all straight from Now-That’s-What-I-Call-The-2000s. There have been plenty of throwbacks to earlier periods, too. After their abject first innings in Brisbane, England let 10 for one become 166 for one. Then, having briefly fought back and ripped the guts out of the middle order, they watched Travis Head and the tail disport themselves to the tune of nearly 200 runs. If that scenario is giving you flashbacks, you clearly lived through the Steve Waugh/Ian Healy era.
As for the state of the batting, well, that one’s a golden oldie. Behold, the instantly collapsible travel XI, precariously propped up by a stoic, heroic captain. Anyone over 30 can hum along to that one, because they’re playing Michael Atherton’s song. Although to be fair, even Atherton was doing a cover version of Graham Gooch at the time.
There have been any number of episodes, in recent years, that have caused the more experienced England fan to complain that it’s like the bloody 1990s all over again. This, of course, is nonsense. At no stage did a 90s team contain England’s greatest wicket-taker of all time, or an all-rounder capable of emulating and even exceeding the legend of Ian Botham. It didn’t have a batter who averaged over 40 in Tests, let alone 50.
But of course, these facts only make the failure of the current crop all the sadder and more infuriating. James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Mark Wood, Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, and even the Secret Santa gift of Ollie Robinson: you could argue it’s the strongest pace attack England have taken to Australia in 30 years, including the one that won in 2010-11. And yet England’s incomprehensibly erratic fielding – not to mention poor bowling strategy and an overthought, overwrought selection policy – have had them firing blanks.
One reason why the spirit of the 90s is being evinced in this instance is that the pattern of defeat is so painfully familiar. England have shown spine only when it’s quite literally too late to affect the outcome of the game. Joe Root and Dawid Malan’s century stands, in both games, offered escape from embarrassment, but not from jail, and as for the beautiful but fantastical hope that Jos Buttler might pull off the mother of all miracle draws in Adelaide … well, this is a time of multiple religious celebrations, so it feels wrong to cast shade on anyone’s belief system. Let’s all agree to keep our faith in Father Christmas for now.
Which brings us back to England’s record in Australia, and the idea that an Ashes tour is one of the greatest sporting shows on earth. If you exclude the Victorian vanity trips that England dominated before Australia had a serious domestic structure of their own, then since the start of the 20th century England have played 145 Tests in Australia, losing 77 of them, winning 43 and drawing 25. Of the nine Ashes series they’ve won away from home – for comparison, they’ve lost 17 – only one has come since 1990.
This edition of the Ashes and England’s performances in it are not helping the creeping fear that the rivalry itself might be gradually evolving into self-parody. England teams heading to the not-so-holy land to hunt for the lost grail do not habitually inspire epic sagas of derring-do. We distract from the one-sidedness of the clash with self-mythologising spin-offs, like Michael Clarke and his broken fuckin’ sledging, or Jonny Bairstow not-quite-head-butting Cameron Bancroft.
There are, of course, still three Tests to play, three opportunities for this series to prove all of the above utterly wrong. England will need to find both Christmas magic and New Year fireworks to stop this story feeling very familiar indeed.