When did England lose the Ashes? Let’s ignore Mr Logic and his drearily and technically correct answer that it was when they lost in Perth.
There are loads of more interesting options. September 25 in Bristol. Or the crossroads where Steve Smith sold his soul to the devil in exchange for inexplicable god-like batting genius in 2013. Or January 30 1990 in Sydney and the birth of Mitchell Aaron Starc.
But if we restrict ourselves to events within the series, and for the sake of sensibleness one feels we must, then it still probably happened incredibly early.
It arguably happened on day one of the whole series and, ridiculously, it probably involved James Vince, a man whose selection to bat three in the first place probably deserves a spot two paragraphs up.
Let’s go back to November 23, 2017. The world was a very different place then. The Marsh Brothers were still a punchline. Australia still had a bit of an iffy batting line-up and had selected a fringe Tasmania batsman as wicket-keeper. Nobody yet knew whether or not Pat Cummins could play five Tests in seven weeks but if you were a betting man you’d be siding against it.
England were 145-2 and going along rather nicely when Vince, having moved serenely to 83 and looking for all the world like he was about to critics of England’s selectors what the Marshes were about to do to Australia’s, took a bit of a dodgy run to cover and was brilliantly run out by Nathan Lyon. Joe Root fell shortly after and a possible 400-450 became a scraped together 302. Australia scrambled a first-innings lead and ultimately chased down 170 for the win with minimal fuss.
It was nearly a great Test match, and one where England nearly created a winning position. WHO KNOWS WHAT MIGHT HAVE HAPPENED. We could very well be sat here talking about Vince’s Ashes. All right, we couldn’t. But it was a huge moment. See also England’s decision on the first day at Adelaide. Not the decision to bowl first, which was far less damaging than the decision to bowl badly.
It was probably a bat-first pitch, but in the conditions Root probably didn’t have a bat-first team. Or, it turned out, a bowl-first team. For all this pointing and pondering, you could probably go back and change a million moments like this and still only manoeuvre England as far as a 3-1 defeat.
England did not bat well enough throughout the series. Dawid Malan was the obvious exception and notable positive, a player nailing down a Test spot and the one Englishman to emerge with reputation significantly enhanced. England have had question marks next to positions two, three and five for some time now. At last one of them appears to have something approaching a definitive answer.
It says much about cricket stats that Malan (383 runs at 42.55) is perceived to have had a very good series, Root (378 at 47.25) an adequate one and Alastair Cook (376 at 47) a poor one.
Another of England’s major problems here was the unexpected problem of their bowling strategy turning out to play perfectly in to the hands of Australia’s batting strategy. England’s bowlers, lacking the tools to blast a team out here, decided they would attempt to bore them out. They would play on the ego of Australia’s batsmen and in this way eke out mistakes.
Unbeknownst to them, Australia had simultaneously concocted their own masterplan which involved simply batting time and putting overs into the legs of James Anderson – who bowled a million overs of near-flawless craftsmanship – and Stuart Broad.
The rest of England’s bowling attack, namely a borked Moeen Ali, a raw Mason Crane and a conveyor belt of interchangeable right-arm 84mph merchants offered little.
This meant that when England were bowling you were frequently left watching a resistible force meet an immovable object, with inevitable results. Only under the lights in the second innings at Adelaide did this natural order of things come under threat. And it still wasn’t enough to alter the result. Although it did offer encouraging signs for England at least that home series wins could well remain the Ashes way in 2019.
The draw in Melbourne has long since been dismissed as an inevitable consequence of a terrible pitch. Now, it was rubbish and slow and low and monotonous, but it produced strange results. Australia decided to just start chopping everything into their stumps to collapse from 122-0 and 260-3 to 327 all out. England by that stage would have taken that on a green seamer.
And on this flattest, easiest of pitches only three England batsmen – two of them very good indeed and one a swisher – made it beyond 30. The pitch was indeed a poor one, though. England by rights shouldn’t have taken a single wicket on it but a positive result – and an England win at that – remained mystifyingly and tantalisingly possible until the final afternoon.
Sydney, like Perth and the tour of India before it, found England on familiar territory: winning the toss, batting first and doing so adequately only to discover adequate didn’t quite cut it. And that was that.
There seems to be widespread acceptance of this result within English cricket. While the blood-letting and arse-covering that went on after England’s last defeat down here was a bit much, ending as it did the career of England’s best batsman at the time and dividing English cricket right down the middle, this year’s ambivalence seems to have gone too far the other way.
All the senior players have just about done enough and just about done so in time for there to be no high-profile playing casualty this time around. Even Vince seems to have earned another chance in New Zealand, so seductive is that cover-drive of his. Surely we can at least demand James Whitaker’s head on a spike atop the Grace Gates, though. That’s not too much to ask.
But no, English cricket’s top brass seem quite happy and will remain so as long as the 2019 series is as hugely profitable as normal and, ideally, England win it.
While 2017/18’s travails seem to have passed by with barely a grumble (genuine poser: is this, as common consent has it, because England have shown “fight” or “spirit”, or “not been quite as all-encompassingly shitawful as four years ago”, or is it that people just haven’t cared as much with the series buried away unwatched among the banter and betting ads on BT Sport?) 2019 is clearly going to be a much bigger deal.
England will expect to regain the Ashes that summer. More importantly to the men in charge, they will hope to win the World Cup. Whether they achieve either, both or neither, it will still be a year of change.
We already know Trevor Bayliss will go no further. Alastair Cook, James Anderson and Stuart Broad may all make it to 2019, but right now it’s hard to see any of them continuing beyond it. Ditto Eoin Morgan on the white-ball front.
How’s this for a prediction, if 2019 goes wrong: Root could lose the Test captaincy but get the one-day job. It’s more likely than Vince still being England’s number three.