Ashes comment: Australia set to keep the urn as England collapse again

BRING them home.

Captain's concern:  Joe Root looks dejected at the end of play during day one of the third Ashes Test.
Captain's concern: Joe Root looks dejected at the end of play during day one of the third Ashes Test.

We can’t take much more of this.

Over-paid, over-feted and over-rated.

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After The Nightmare Before Christmas, it’s now The Nightmare After Christmas.

Gone: Jonny Bairstow reacts after being caught by Cameron Green off Mitchell Starc.

Joe Root called for a reaction after defeat in the first two Ashes Tests and he got one – a negative reaction.

Only Root managed a half-century as England were bowled out for 185 after being sent into bat in the Boxing Day Test, Australia closing day one in Melbourne on 61-1.

Of course, it is wise to apply all the usual caveats about how it could all come right in the end just in case this England side really are capable of coming back from 2-0 down to win the series – as if.

But only once in Ashes history has a team overturned a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2 and that was when a chap called Bradman rapped out scores of 270, 212 and 169 to turn the 1936-37 series on its head, nostalgia that invariably gets trotted out whenever England are Down Under for reasons that do not need any explanation.

Joy: Australia's Scott Boland celebrates the wicket of England's Mark Wood.

Barring a miracle, this series has gone and the Ashes with it, a campaign months in the making now flirting with embarrassment.

Five-nil, anyone?

One would certainly not bet against it.

England have been dreadful in terms of their performance, their decision-making, their tactics and their selection.

Other than that, they’ve played an absolute blinder.

There is mitigation, for sure, in the lack of match practice for players both prior to and during the series, the inevitable consequence of a schedule/calendar that actively works against first-class cricket, plus the added complication of Covid restrictions.

Jonny Bairstow, for example, yesterday played his first first-class innings since September and, in the circumstances, did pretty well.

The Yorkshireman scored 35 before he was cramped for room by a ball from his old county colleague Mitchell Starc which he gloved to gully as he tried to arch back out of the way.

Zak Crawley had also not had a first-class hit for around three months, his innings of 12 a slight improvement on a Test average this year of 11.14.

Crawley was another caught in the gully, squared-up by Pat Cummins, the returning Australia captain, who either side of that wicket had Haseeb Hameed caught behind for a duck – England’s 50th of the Test match year – and Dawid Malan taken at first slip after being drawn forward.

Malan’s dismissal, just before lunch, was a body blow after he and Root had just started to steady the ship following the loss of both openers.

Root whipped the ball nicely off his pads and had his release shot working into the off-side too, reaching fifty for the third time in the series. But his quest for a maiden Test hundred in Australia goes on, with his own dismissal emblematic of the way in which pre-match talk has a habit of proving to be a load of hot air.

For having made a big play about the need to leave the ball well and to sell wickets dearly, Root rather wafted at Starc as he played away from his body off the back foot, presenting a simple chance to wicketkeeper Alex Carey.

Yet Root was by no means the only one guilty of a brain fade.

Ben Stokes, after playing one of the shots of the day when he launched Nathan Lyon for a straight six into a crowd that numbered some 57,000, then essayed one of the worst when he leant back and cut Cameron Green to point.

Stokes has made no impact on the series so far when the need for his magic could not be greater.

But he, too, has had little cricket through a combination of injury and poor mental health.

Jos Buttler then trumped the lot of them by charging Lyon on the stroke of tea and presenting the simplest of catches to deep mid-wicket.

Buttler was so far away from the pitch of the ball that he might as well have been batting at a different ground; if it was not quite a shot of surrender then it was one which, at the very least, suggested that minds are scrambled.

Mark Wood was leg-before propping forward to give Scott Boland his first Test wicket, the 32-year-old the first indigenous Australian to play Test cricket for Australia since Jason Gillespie, the former Yorkshire coach.

Boland served up some steady fare in the absence of the injured Josh Hazlewood, with England showing four changes to the side that had followed defeat by nine wickets in Brisbane with a 275-run hammering in Adelaide – Crawley, Bairstow, Wood and Jack Leach replacing Rory Burns, Ollie Pope, Chris Woakes and Stuart Broad.

Leach also thumped a straight six off Lyon before pushing the same bowler to slip, the innings ending when Ollie Robinson fell in not dissimilar fashion to Buttler – although at least Robinson had an excuse as he tried to fashion what runs he could in company with the tail.

David Warner thumped 38 from 42 balls before James Anderson had him defending towards gully in the final moments of a dismal day, providing at least a crumb of comfort for the bedraggled tourists as they left the field with much to ponder.

But the game is up and the Ashes – barring that miracle – are remaining safely in Australian hands, with England’s Test side collectively just not up to top-class standard.

The effort cannot be faulted, the desire to do well cannot be faulted, but those are the minimum requirements for any sporting XI – from village green to Test match arena.