England lose 4-0 in Ashes: How it all went wrong

Courier's cricket correspondent dissects a woeful Ashes tour and conducts a grisly post-mortem.

Matthew Griffiths
24th January 2022
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Test 1 - Brisbane

So there we were, the first ball of the Ashes.

This what England were building to since the last Ashes series, a draw entirely due to winning the dead rubber match when the Australians had retained the urn already and Ben Stokes winning himself Sports Personality of The Year for an innings that defied logic and all sanity. Sure, our pace-based plan was hit with injuries that left only Mark Wood fit to play, we had no practice cricket, and we lost home matches to India and a series to New Zealand 2-0 when they made six changes to their best team for the second game.

But Australia hadn't played a test for 11 months, and that had been losing to a fourth string India side beset by more injuries than was even remotely plausible and who had played multiple short form specialists as debutants to make up the numbers. And then the huge boost as Tim Paine, wicket keeper and bafflingly Australian captain through the fallout of Steve Smith and Co.’s sandpaper punishment pseudo-voluntary gap year, (see sandpapergate) was at the centre of a sexting scandal that led to him resigning and not being in the team. Australia turned to Pat Cummins, a fast bowler. Fast bowling captains have almost never happened and wisdom suggests they never work well. Surely this time England had a chance, with Root in the form of his life and the impossible test saving powers of Ben Stokes back from his extended mental health break over the summer. Add to that the selection of Mitchel Starc, who Shane Warne questioned the inclusion of, and was seemingly on shaky ground with the selectors as he steamed in for the first ball.

England have had many first ball disasters over the years, from Phil de Freitas being dispatched for a crunching four, to the wrong call at the toss in 2002 before the game had even begun and then of course Steve Harmison with the mega wide of 2006-7, but surely such a bad run couldn't continue, and they were batting this time.

Rory Burns was bowled around his legs first ball. Truly Stan Worthington lived again, the last man to be a duck on the first ball of an Ashes in the 1936-37 series.

England 147 and 297
Australia 425 and 20/1
Australia won by 9 wickets.

Breaking the trend of mediocrity-at-best on debut in the Ashes, the new wicket keeper and replacement Tim Paine Alex Carey took the most keeper catches on debut of all time.

Test 2 - Adelaide

Then it came to the second test, and more good news for England. Josh Hazelwood was injured and then on the day of the test, Pat Cummins was in close contact with one of the 25 people in the whole of New South Wales to test positive. So, with the often-marginalised Kyle Richardson and Michel Neser coming in relatively unproven in tests, this was England's chance against weakened bowling to finally score some runs.

Australia 473/9 declared and 230/9 declared
England 236 and 192. Target 468
Australia won by 275 runs.

Test 3 - Melbourne

Coming into the boxing day test, England had new straws to desperately clutch at. Normally by the time it comes to the boxing day test England have already lost but this time, due to a change in the schedule, the boxing day test was the 3rd and not the 4th match. Also, this was the pitch on which, in the last series Alastair Cook played his dramatic 240, in a series in which he otherwise didn't manage a fifty for the third time in his career. Finally, someone in the England team could hit some runs and the only other series where a team 2-0 down had won it was the the 1936-37 series, where England also had a first ball of the series duck. Not only that but Kyle Richardson had pulled up injured, meaning the journeyman first class player Scott Boland was called for a test debut as he was apparently some sort of specialist for the ground. Finally things were looking up for England as he was probably not as good as the other five quick bowlers played before him...

England 185 and 68
Australia 267
Australia won by an innings and 12 runs.

Scott Boland took 6 wickets for 7 runs in four overs on the morning of the third day, one of the best ever bowling spells. This was one of the lowest totals ever for an innings win. England’s 68 was abysmal. By almost every metric this was the worst game since before the first world war, at which point the uncovered pitches howls begin from the heckling stands. In modern cricket it is one of the worst defeats in any test match ever. Accounting for the rain delays on the first day of the first test, the Ashes was all over within 12 days of cricket. 10 more days stretch before us and England's capitulation was so fast and so bad that if you re-played the entire test match straight after it had finished, ball by ball, only England's perennial terribly slow over rate would take the game past lunch on day five. They were record setters.

As Joe Root had scored the third most runs ever in a calendar year across 2021, his team have been at the other end of the scale with the bat. He has the highest difference to the rest of his teams’ average for a year ever, of over 40. England have the joint most ducks ever in one fewer test than their rivals, which is themselves in the '90s, also on 54. No one else has more than 50 and it's far more top order ducks than any other side. England have 'extras' as their third highest scorer, and even there this year 'extras' have had one of the lowest scores in the past decade.

Test 4 - Sydney

For the fourth test, things looked only down. Shane McGrath was on his five-nil prediction victory laps, even as Warne, a master of spin both on and off the pitch, began to suggest his criticism had fired up Starc, who had yet to fail with the bat and picked up a lot of key wickets. Only Dawid Malan and Root had hit fifty, and no team has ever not had three fifty scoring batters in three completed tests. And to top it off, the coach Chris Silverwood was isolating from covid. But England won their only ashes test in the last 13 that wasn't a Ben Stokes miracle in a dead rubber match with the outcome decided, as came all of the great wins of the 1990s. The 2021 ashes was over and was 3-0, but the two match 2022 ashes could be back on and this was a chance to try new players and get things back on track. England made one change.

Australia 416/8 declared and 265/6 declared.
England 294 and 270/9, target 388.
Match drawn.

Immediately, and almost inevitably, with Travis Head missing out for Australia due to Covid, the last minute substitute Usman Khawaja obviously, as with every other Australian change so far, was brilliant. He scored two centuries, one of them unbeaten, to be player of the match. On the final day, in the last two overs and under bad light Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, England's worst batters, fended off Steve Smith, Australia's worst bowling option, as the final section of a thrilling and fantastic England victory in a losing draw and the high point of the tour so far. Two fairly unremarkable overs of mediocre bowling prodded past the eight fielders clustered around the bat to secure a triumphant draw. Sure, England hadn't scored 300 in the entire series yet either, but Crawley actually looked fantastic in the second innings and Jonny Bairstow became England's first centurion of the tour. It was quite probably one of the great England performances of the last decade and certainly the last 3 Series. England had now only lost 12 of their last 14 test in Australia, one being this draw and one being the last ever game at the WACA on a pitch of unbelievably terrible quality as mentioned before.

Test 5 - Hobart

Going into the 5th Match England could have been in real trouble. Both Bairstow and Buttler had broken fingers and so for a wicket keeper they asked Sam Billings to drive 9 hours from his Australian T20 match to join the team as one of the last Englishmen in Australia, ninety minutes before he boarded a plane back to the UK. He gained the honour of being England's 700 test cap. But boosted by the triumphant draw, it could only get better.

Australia 303 and 155
England 188 and 124
Australia won by 146 runs.

Sam Billings hit a plucky 29 in the first innings and 1 in the second. He immediately entered the frame as one of England’s next captaincy options. England lost inside three days, again. They were all out for under 200 again, taking the series tally to six of the ten innings. They lost 99 wickets, just missing the draw as they only took 73 of their own, showing how many times Australia had heaps more runs than they did and declared or won innings victories. Scott Boland has an unmatched average for a modern player, 18 wickets for under 180 runs. Travis Head was player of the series, for making 357 runs across it and two centuries.

9 of the last 10 series have been convincing Australian wins. England need to find a way to avoid going back to the same restaurant and getting horrific food poisoning. Admittedly the other time was a Michelin starred feast of four 500 run scores and three innings wins in 2011-12, but I did promise one piece of genuine analysis for this article so here goes.

Australia’s batters managed collectively the fewest runs in a series since 1990, averaging the third worst and with the second fewest centuries. They had five of the top six run scorers but Steve Smith, batting colossus, who had series to rival the highest peaks of Don Bradman in both of the last two ashes series hadn’t got a century, and even the best of them only made 350 in six innings, and no one else much above 40. England's bowling was for the most part pretty good. However in batting came the root of the problem.

Apart from the Root himself, Joe managing 322, the rest was quite bad. England players with fewer runs than Mitchel Starc, the swing it and hope batting slogger himself, include true all-rounder Woakes, as well as openers Hameed and Burns, the number six specialist Pope, and the walking dynamite of T20 cricket Jos Buttler. Starc played one more innings than a few, but he also played less innings than some of them. England players with a lower average than the terrible walking wicket that is Nathan Lyon, in addition to the bowlers one might expect, once again throws Buttler Hameed and Burns to the Lyons (see what I did there!). Looking at averages for the team combined since 1990, England’s collective batting average across the five matches of away Ashes series were: 26, 25, 22, 27, 24, 48.44 with 9 centuries, 20, 28, 19. In that time England have won only one series, I leave the reader to work out which one it was.

In conclusion there may be some form of correlation between England hitting shedloads of runs, and not being hammered in away series. The obituary for the concept of English batting will be printed in this year’s Wisden almanack.

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