Sunday 18 February 2018

Disintegrating from within

Australian infighting and frailties have seen hosts dominate Ashes, writes Dion Fanning

Dion Fanning

Shortly after Ashton Agar, Australia's hero in the first Test, had been run out at Lord's on Friday, Glenn McGrath walked along the back of the press box shaking his head. McGrath, the great advance man whose Ashes predictions were usually the first sign of impending doom for England, would later describe the day as "horrendous".

When Agar was run out, Australia were 96-7. Even for a man like McGrath, who rarely believed Australia could lose a match, let alone a series, an Ashes which had promised so much looked like it could be over by the afternoon of the second day of the second Test.

On Thursday, the Australian bowler Ryan Harris had remarked that Peter Siddle's no-ball, when he had bowled Jonny Bairstow, was demoralising and "potentially it can cost the Ashes". Bairstow made another 46 runs. Australia's collapse on Friday made that figure look insignificant. On Friday, they were all out for 128, 233 runs behind England's first innings score and things just got worse yesterday.

Those who don't get cricket sometimes complain that nothing happens for days at a time. The first Test at Trent Bridge demonstrated the flimsiness of that complaint when every one of the five days was absorbing, with Australia eventually losing by 14 runs.

Australia were said to be reinvigorated but if a lot had happened during the first Test, the days following Trent Bridge were pretty gripping as well.

Australia had to deal with the leaking of papers from the legal action taken by their former coach Mickey Arthur. Most of these covered old ground but with new vividness, particularly Arthur's comment that Michael Clarke had described Shane Watson as a "cancer" on the team. Arthur also complained that he was "the meat in the sandwich" as the pair fought.

All week the Australians stuck to the message that this was in the past, they had moved on and their performance in the first Test demonstrated their resurgence under Darren 'Boof' Lehmann. Arthur had been dismissed a couple of weeks before the first Test so it could be said that the past wasn't dead and it truly wasn't even past.

Shane Watson was certainly going to make an impact and he may yet be the defining presence from an Australian point of view in this series.

If there is a criticism of this England team, it is that they are mechanical and lack inspiration. When Agar came to the crease at Trent Bridge, their bowlers struggled to dismiss him because they hadn't been provided with the statistical dossiers which guide them when dealing with all batsmen. Without their briefing notes, they struggled to find a way to get him out.

If this is a criticism then Australia are making an overwhelming case for the methodical and mechanical by demonstrating what happens in its absence. They are baffled by most things from DRS to a ball falling from the sky, each calamity revealing the flimsiness of their purpose and the depth of their anxiety.

From the Friday of the first Test to the lunchtime before the second, Clarke was asked questions about his use of DRS, which was the most pressing issue until Arthur's leaked papers came along. On Friday, both would converge along the same fault line: Shane Watson.

Clarke was frank about the improvement needed in his use of the referral system but he also gave the impression that DRS – introduced more than four years ago – had taken him by surprise, as if the team had been served a dodgy prawn curry during the first Test and his job at Trent Bridge had been to manage the crisis while the bug swept through the team.

England, by contrast, tried to remove emotion from the use of the system. Again, the counterpoint to England's approach would look like Shane Watson.

Watson was one of the four Australian cricketers suspended by Arthur in India after they failed to produce written work. He returned home, complaining that the punishment was "harsh".

"I know Shane reasonably well. I think he acts in the best interests of the team sometimes," Cricket Australia executive Pat Howard said as the scandal dragged on, the 'sometimes' defining Watson's place in the Australian side.

Watson is a player who has achieved seniority without acquiring any of experience's benefits, like wisdom and the gift of not making the same mistakes again and again.

Watson is 32 years old. In his 77 Test innings for Australia, he has made two centuries. He has been out between 30 and 60 in 35 per cent of his innings. He is out lbw almost 30 per cent of the time. Yet in this series he has used one of Australia's two reviews per innings in each Test match to question this very familiar dismissal. Each has failed.

When Watson used up one of Australia's reviews on Friday on another lbw dismissal, Australia collectively seemed to give up on him.

"It is unfair and hurtful to describe Shane Watson as a cancer in the Australian team," Australian journalist John Townsend wrote yesterday. "He is actually more like a common cold. He clogs the system, causes an ache and annoys many of the people with whom he makes contact."

As Australia floundered in search of its purpose, Watson was the figurehead for the dysfunction in the team which, despite reducing England to 31-3 by close of play on Friday, knew that the match and the series moved beyond them yesterday as England finished 566 runs ahead. This morning they will wait for the English declaration and defeat won't be far behind.

Some Australian journalists were already making plans to return home, knowing that there will be diminished interest in the series if they have lost the first two Tests and the Ashes look lost.

The series needed a competitive Australia and, after Trent Bridge, it looked like Australia had discovered enough to compete. They had been 117-9 in their first innings at Nottingham which was the warning sign. On Friday, they were 104-9 but Agar was already in the dressing room and if 10th-wicket partnerships had made them respectable at Trent Bridge, it wasn't going to happen at Lord's.

Australia had been buoyed by their record at Lord's where they had lost only once since 1934. But that defeat was in 2009 and since then England have won a series in Australia and now look certain to win this one.

Watson couldn't be blamed for Australia losing 10 wickets for 86 runs on Friday but he certainly released the neurotic uncertainty.

As Joe Root showed the Australian batsmen how to bat yesterday, not only on the Lord's pitch but in Test cricket, Australia were asking questions which go beyond where Clarke should bat. Root, who is 178 not out, might have been dismissed on Friday but his edge went between Brad Haddin and Clarke, another area of uncertainty for Australia.

Watson's failure has prompted a lot of these questions. On Friday, Lehmann (who is now called 'Bad Day Boof' by the Australian media because he appears at press conferences at the end of a day like Friday, which may not be the last bad day) said Chris Rogers had made the call for Watson to take the review.

Some were sceptical about this but still wondered why Watson's leadership didn't extend beyond a vain attempt to save his own wicket. Rogers would then perish, too scared to review, when Graeme Swann's comic full toss hit him on the waist band and he was incorrectly given out. Phil Hughes used their last review in reckless fashion which matched his reckless shot.

A more prudent use of reviews wouldn't have saved Australia but they did serve to indicate their extraordinary brittleness and chronic anxiety. As the batsmen froze on Friday, DRS was something else to fret about and to deal with nervously.

Their flawed relationship with reviews continued yesterday when Ian Bell edged to Steve Smith but the third umpire decided the ball hadn't carried. It would have made little difference to the result, perhaps only moving Australia, as Freud hoped to do with his patients, from a state of neurotic misery to one of normal human unhappiness.

Even that may be beyond them. The great Australian teams haunt this side. Their players look down from commentary positions and corporate boxes, providing a glimpse of the myth and the reality that was Australian cricket. On Thursday, Steve Waugh rang the bell for the start of play at Lord's and when England were 28-3 they had hope.

Waugh pursued the mental disintegration of opponents, determined not just to beat them but to crush them. This side let England get away last week.

Watson may be as representative of this side as Waugh was of his. And he, too, may now be made up of reality and myth. Watson is part of a side which is still pursuing mental disintegration, even if this time the only ones disintegrating are themselves.

Irish Independent

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