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England Defeated in Australia, AGAIN

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Eleven Tests, ten defeats and a draw, and scarcely a whiff of an upset in any of them. Since their last series win in Australia in 2010-11, England’s record Down Under has been abysmal – so poor, in fact, that it was hard to feel especially moved by the totality of this latest loss at Brisbane. When a side has slumped to 11 for 3 inside six overs after choosing to bat first, it’s hard to muster much more than a shrug of recognition when the same outfit squanders its final eight wickets in an unseemly rush for the exits. This match was lost within half an hour of its beginning, irrespective of the “positives” that Joe Root, England’s captain, is adamant can still be gleaned from the wreckage.

“We’re game-hardened now,” Root said, after England’s Covid- and rain-wrecked build-up to the first Test. “We’d not had that going into it, so we’ll be better for it. Those guys that have not experienced [the Ashes] before know what’s coming now, and sometimes that [next] game coming around quite quickly is exactly what you need, to get straight back out there and put things right.”

It’s not that Root does not have a point. With the ball, Mark Wood and Ollie Robinson were outstanding in contrasting yet complementary ways, while Root’s own reaction to his first-innings duck was reassuring confirmation that the world’s No.1 batter has not mislaid his touch in the four months since his last competitive outing. His partnership with Dawid Malan was in-game evidence of the strides that this team can make, while Haseeb Hameed and Ollie Pope are among a cast of players who may feel better orientated for their incomplete displays.

And yet England, by dint of their glaring inadequacies in Australian conditions, have now set such low expectations that all manner of bouncing dead cats could be mistaken for signs of an impending recovery – maybe even Rory Burns’ triumph in avoiding a king pair, a feat he achieved by avoiding the first ball of the innings for only the fourth occasion out of 264 in his first-class career. Even then, he had to rely on the lottery that was the Gabba’s technology back-up to overturn an lbw verdict two balls later.No amount of marginal gains from first innings to second can disguise England’s current run of 11 Tests – and 11 years – without a victory in Australia. It is a longer run of failure than they managed even in an era commonly recalled as the team’s nadir – the ten-Test stretch from January 1987 to January 1995, which began with Mike Gatting’s Ashes-winners being spun to defeat at Sydney by an unknown debutant Peter Taylor (whom legend has it owed his call-up to a case of mistaken identity) and ended with an extraordinary win against the head at Adelaide – one of those glorious 1990s flashes-in-the-pan that somehow made all of the team’s other indignities worthwhile.In between whiles, those indignities included Graham Gooch “farting against thunder” during a supine 3-0 loss in the “Tiger Moth” tour of 1990-91 – a series in which England managed to take a first-innings lead in each of the opening two Tests, only to then lose them by ten wickets (at the Gabba, natch) and eight wickets respectively. Thereafter, Shane Warne’s supremacy opened such a baffling new dimension in Ashes combat that England could hardly be blamed for taking an entire generation to work out how to play him.

There’s no such mystery about Australia’s dominance these days. They have a mighty roster of fast bowlers, and a spinner in Nathan Lyon with sufficient guile to claim 403 Test wickets and counting. And while Steve Smith is a freak of nature who had been averaging 120 in Ashes Tests over the past four years, he’s still not quite Don Bradman – on whose watch England’s record barren run in Australia was recorded: 12 Tests (punctuated by a World War) between 1937 and 1951.Some might counter that Australia’s recent record in England isn’t so flash either. They haven’t won an Ashes series there since 2001, which – on the face of it – goes to underline the suspicion that home advantage is half the battle won in modern-day Test cricket. And yet, that doesn’t square with Australia’s impressive haul of four wins and a draw in their last ten away Ashes Tests.Nor does it square with the fact that there has been just one truly close contest, home or away, since Australia launched their 5-0 whitewash at the Gabba in 2013. Ben Stokes’ miracle at Headingley in 2019 was precisely the sort of heist that encouraged the fallacy (and everyone bought into it to a greater or lesser degree) that there could yet be a twist to this latest tale, despite all reasonable Test-match precedent stating that, when a team trails by 278 runs on first innings, there’s really no hope of salvation.

But it’s an addictive narrative nonetheless, and one that England were leaning on during the summer as well, when they lost two series on home soil for the first time since that aforementioned Ashes summer of 2001. And yes, we know that – technically speaking – the India series isn’t over yet. But anyone who witnessed England getting mangled at Lord’s and The Oval knows where the balance of power lay going into the fifth Test at Old Trafford.

But it’s an addictive narrative nonetheless, and one that England were leaning on during the summer as well, when they lost two series on home soil for the first time since that aforementioned Ashes summer of 2001. And yes, we know that – technically speaking – the India series isn’t over yet. But anyone who witnessed England getting mangled at Lord’s and The Oval knows where the balance of power lay going into the fifth Test at Old Trafford.

Everything about England’s Test cricket at present is focused on the individuals within fronting up and giving more to the cause – be it Stokes, only just returned from the abyss after fearing his badly mended finger might prevent him from playing ever again – or more recently Root, on whom English cricket’s every expectation is currently piled. The moment he failed to reach his elusive maiden century in Australia was the moment that the scales fell from the optimists’ eyes. This year’s monstrous haul of 1544 runs at 64.33 could grow larger still at Adelaide and Melbourne, but even Root’s lifetime best hasn’t been able to prevent England from losing seven and winning one of their last ten Tests.But miracle-working is a tenacious narrative – just ask the Bible’s publishers. For Root in this contest, and Stokes in general terms, read James Anderson’s recall under the Adelaide lights next week. While there’s individual brilliance in England’s ranks, there’s always reason to believe that the collective can surge as one. But just don’t look too closely at Anderson’s overall win-loss record in Australia. Nor, for that matter, at the England Lions’ batting card in their unofficial Test against Australia A, which is taking place just down the road. The rot, it seems, is set deep into the system, and not simply restricted to those who’ve been outgunned at the Gabba.

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