England have predictably been hammered in the Ashes. And the conversation is about everything other than the actual reason why.
It is a brutal fact about Test cricket that evaluating a Test series involves asking exactly two questions. There isn't a third. And it's no good asking just one question. The answers to these two questions tell you whether the series will be competitive, who'll win it, and who will lose.
It's actually the same question for each side.
“How does this side plan to take 20 wickets?”.
The answer tells you who's going to win and whether there's a favorite. There are series in which only one side offers a plausible answer. That side is hot favorite and always wins. There are series in which neither side offers a plausible answer, and those series are competitive and interesting. And there are series in which both sides offer a plausible answer, and those series produce memorable Test cricket.
Putting this question for the Ashes provided only one answer: Australia were going to win, and it wasn't going to be close.
England didn’t have a plausible plan to take 20 wickets. Their best bowler - James Anderson, managed 14 wickets in 5 Tests in 2013/14, and 17 wickets in 5 Tests in 2017/18, bowling 22% of England’s overs in each series. That’s England’s spearhead - taking 3 wickets per Test match in Australia and bowling just over a fifth of England’s overs. The figure which is bandied about most often about Anderson is that in the last seven years, he’s taken 110 wickets at 23.7 in 33 Tests outside England. Those are good figures, but they’re unlikely to worry any reasonably strong opponent, since he produces 3.3 wickets per Test and bowls 20% of England’s overs.
Their second most experienced bowler is Stuart Broad. He managed 11 wickets 47 apiece in 2017/18 - 2.2 wickets per Test.
Chris Woakes managed 10 wickets at 49.5 in the 2017/18 Ashes.
England’s finest genuinely quick bowler - Jofra Archer - is unavailable due to injury. The pretender in his job is Mark Wood, who had played 21 Tests over 6 years starting in 2015 before this tour, didn’t play in the last Ashes series in Australia, and managed 64 wickets in 21 Tests at a cost on the wrong side of 30 apiece. Wood is quick, but there’s nothing in his record which suggests that he would threaten in a sustained manner.
On the spin bowling side, England fielded Jack Leach, without a five wicket haul outside the turners in Asia. He was never going to be a match of Nathan Lyon who started the series on 399 Test wickets and 18 five wicket hauls.
So far, we’ve covered all but one English bowler, and the options are the ones who conceded nearly 50 runs per wicket in Australia in the 2017/18 Ashes, and are all four years older.
The last English bowler is also their newest. Ollie Robinson has been a find, and there was reason to expect that he would take a lot of wickets in Australia. If he does not break down due to injury, he’ll probably end up with 20 odd wickets at a relatively cheap cost of about 25 apiece. Four Robinsons, and England would be in business. They have about one and a half Robinsons as it happens.
Compare that to the Australian attack. Apart from the brilliant Nathan Lyon, Pat Cummins is already one of the greatest fast bowlers of all time. He now has a 174 Test wickets in his 36 Tests, at 21 apiece. He averages 4.8 wickets per Test. Mitchell Starc is genuinely quick from the less common left arm angle, and also manages more than 4 wickets per Test on average (he too, like Cummins, takes a wicket every 46-49 balls, a world beating rate). Josh Hazlewood at 215 Test wickets at 25.6 in 56 Tests - just under 4 wickets per Test. His figures in Australia read 130 wickets at 24.7 in 32 Tests - 4.1 wickets per match. Cummins managed 29 wickets in England in the 2019 Ashes without a five wicket haul - nearly 6 wickets per Test.
When one batting line up has to face those English bowlers, and the other has to face a line up with the wicket taking quality and depth of the Australian attack, its not going to be a competitive series. The thing about the combination of quality and depth (consider that Australia’s 5th bowler is Cameron Green, a bowler who would have opened the bowling for India for most of my lifetime), is that it gives the batters no respite.
When the Australian batters face England, they know that they can see Anderson and Robinson off, and there will be runs available from the others (who will bowl the majority of overs the Aussies face, because Anderson bowls less than a quarter of England’s overs), because the others are not as accurate, or as relentlessly questioning as Anderson and Robinson. Nor do they have any particular high quality weapons, like an unreadable googly, or reverse swing. When the English batters face Australia, there is no such breather.
You can line up the best six batters in the world to face Australia in Australia, and if those batters are backed by the English bowling from this Ashes series, Australia would still win every time. The Australians just bowl too many wicket taking balls too often for batters to be able to compete. There is no batting answer to the problem of competing against this Australia in Australia.
Now, the one thing England could hope for, is for a couple of the Australian bowlers to be out of form, or short of fitness, and for their replacements to be mediocre. Alas, that did not happen. Michael Neser (238 FC wickets at 24.7), Jhye Richardson (95 FC wickets at 21.3) and Scott Boland (279 FC wickets at 25.6), all come with strong experience of bowling on Australian pitches. Once that was the case, there was no real hope.
What’s more, this is not new. England have lost the Ashes after the first three Tests of the series in Australia in 2002/03, 2006/07, 2013/14, 2017/18 and 2021/22. The one time they didn’t, Australia’s attack was poor, and England’s attack had a top class spinner - Swann, and some genuine hostility in Tremlett. In 2002/03, it took Australia 5380 balls to wrap up the first three Tests, in 06/07, 8514 balls, in 2013/14 6443, in 2017/18 6623. In 2021/22 its taken them 5115 balls. But this is not their record. In the 2001 Ashes in England, the Aussies wrapped up the series by winning the first three Tests in a mere 3991 balls.
Its all very well complaining that Haseeb Hameed or Rory Burns are not upto it. But Marcus Harris and David Warner and the other Australian bats don’t have to play against Cummins, Starc, Hazlewood and Lyon. The only way to give the English batters a chance is for England to have bowlers who can match the Australians for quality. This will create situations where Australia have to defend runs. Then the English bats will get to bat against fields which offer them a few runs because the odd boundary has to be defended. Right now, the Australians never have to bowl without the luxury of every single catching fielder they like.
The reason India’s batters seemed to get lucky in 2020/21, with the odd catch not going to hand, is because Australia kept being put in positions by the Indian bowling where they didn’t have runs to play with. India’s first innings totals in 2020/21 were not that different from what they managed in, say 1999/00 - 244, 326, 244 and finally, 336 at the fast scoring Gabba. There was also, of course the 36/9. But in the first two Tests of that 2020/21 series, Australia managed 191, 195 and 200 in three of their four innings. India conceded more than 350 once in that entire series.
Since they conceded 443/7 and 622/7 on two absolute roads at Melbourne and Sydney against India (well, mostly, Cheteshwar Pujara) in 2018/19, Australia have taken at least 9 wickets in 25 out of 28 Test innings they’ve bowled in at home, and never conceded more than 336. They’ve dug up the horribly flat MCG pitch (the year before India made 443/7, Alastair Cook made 244 there in a Test in which only 24 wickets fell in 5 days) and its been a textbook result pitch since.
This makes it even more difficult against an attack as good and deep as Australia’s. Even the pitch is not available to the batter to tame the bowling.
In these circumstances, conceding 425 and 473 in the 1st innings was fatal. But it was also unsurprising. Its hard to think of a batting line up which could avoid defeat after those sorts of totals.
Given this, the remarkably single minded attention to the batting in all the post-match conversation on podcasts, newspaper columns and the like, seems to be a lament about respectability rather than competitiveness. England were never going to compete against this Australia with that attack.
England’s serious problems lie on the bowling side. Their worst players in this series have been Stuart Broad, Chris Woakes, Jack Leach and Mark Wood. They’ve put England in a deep enough hole between them, that its hard to think of any batting line up which could salvage anything out of it on these pitches which always offer something to the bowlers, against these Australian bowlers.
Its all very well complaining about administrators, coaches, schedules, other formats and the like. The only question as far as competitiveness is concerned is - which 5 bowlers would you have picked to ensure that England picked 20 wickets in a Test in Australia? England have managed this once - at Sydney in the new year’s Test of 2014 - since the end of the 2010/11 Ashes.
In fact, if you consider all the Ashes series in the 21st century in Australia other than the 2010/11 one, England have managed to take 20 Australian wickets in a Test in Australia only twice in 23 Tests.
Its not their batting that’s the problem.