Magic of Ashes diluted by inexorable unravelling of Australia
Oh well. Two Tests down. Just the eight – yes, eight – still to go. Less than a fortnight into England's and Australia's conjoined 10-Test Ashes mega-summer it is already tempting to wonder if all this might have been, if not quite a mistake, then perhaps a classic case of too much of a good thing.
Certainly as England ambled their way through Australia's single-ply batting order in front of another sweltering Lord's full house to win the second Test by 347 runs, it was hard to avoid the sense of a fatal diminishing of intensity, perhaps even the first stages of an inexorable descent into glazed and sated cricketing somnolence.
So early in the piece this might sound like something verging on sacrilege. And perhaps it is indeed impossible to grow so tired of Ashes cricket that the thrill can diminish. Either way we will soon find out.
Just how special is it out there? This is the question the TV interviewers seem intent on asking every Ashes interviewee, every star of the day, in fact pretty much anybody they can muscle in behind a mic. And of course it is only natural, the ramping-up of the history angle, that muscular breadth of scale, the tearfully invoked sense of Ashes tradition, if only because at the centre of all this there is already a notable absence of competitive tension, not to mention at times some pretty ordinary cricket being played.
Two Tests into the back-to-back series it is starting to look like what it is: a decent team and a poor team playing each other 10 times in a row for no clear reason beyond their own grand and illustrious shared history.
It would be all too easy at this point to blame Australia for this early sense of drift. And yet it would also be correct to blame Australia, at least for now, at the end of a day when Michael Clarke's team batted not just poorly but with a hangdog air of impending defeat.
With England declaring shortly after their own attempts to usher Joe Root to his double hundred had collapsed, Australia could at least have made a stab at salvaging some competitive propriety here after the supine efforts of their first innings. Instead they made another poor start at the top of the order as Shane Watson played once again like Shane Watson. Australia's senior opener is not so much an lbw candidate as duly elected landslide life president of the worldwide lbw society, and here there was a sense with every crumped cover drive of the inevitable creeping ever closer. Watson was lbw to James Anderson for a feisty 20 and has now been out lbw 24 times in 87 innings. He walked off looking absolutely baffled.
So did Chris Rogers, who left a arm-ball and was off almost before his bails hit the ground. Clarke conjured a promising partnership with Usman Khawaja before very courteously and precisely gliding a Root off-break into the hands of Alastair Cook at leg-slip. Khawaja, who looked a lovely, well-balanced player here, also fell to the demon Root, victim this time of a sharply turning off-break. And just when it looked as if they were going to win a session, Australia had lost three wickets in 23 balls and the game was all but up.
Steve Smith was perhaps unlucky, feathering an imperceptible edge to Matt Prior off Anderson having played a horrible shot, the flat-footed yahoo of a drunken carpet beater. While Ashton Agar – who this time last week was about to become prime minister of Australia – produced a skittish innings ended by a catch behind off Tim Bresnan. No word, as yet, from Hugh Jackman on that one.
So the match rumbled to its extended close, delayed by the usual 10th-wicket resistance, this time courtesy of James Pattinson, who batted well again for his 35. And yet, for all the pleasure England's supporters will rightly take in finding their team two up with eight to play, and for all the lurking dramatic appeal of the whitewash and thence the double-whitewash, there is already a vague sense of unravelling around the edges of this Ashes endurance event.
If Old Trafford follows the pattern of the previous two Tests the series will be effectively over with almost a month of cricket still to be played. At which point both teams will surely start to think, just a little, about the winter's back five, raising the ghastly, albeit unlikely, prospect of England resting Anderson or Swann with a view to livelier rubbers in the winter. Chris Tremlett might yet be picked in the Test team for a bit of a run-out – a home Ashes run-out: how special was it out there, Chris? – before the winter. Maybe England could even stage a dead rubber bowl-off to find out who the second-choice spinner should be.
There is an issue of bad timing here: generally a 10-match extravaganza requires a coherent opposition and Australia, unfortunately, are at a generational low. But really, and as ever, there is an issue of finance and expansive administration at the heart of all this.
It is impossible not to conclude that the shared willingness to stage this double-header springs from something a little broader than simply a regularising of the calendar.
remains Test cricket's greatest cash cow: it is a revolving, hospitality-shrouded full-house modern sporting phenomenon. Its powers both commercial – tickets are now selling fast in Australia – and dramatic are apparently beyond dilution. And yet with 10 days of rest before Old Trafford there will be plenty on both sides hoping for at least signs of an Australia revival.
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