The Decline of Australian Sport

Michael Jennings isn’t going to like me pointing this out, but Australian sport appears to be going through a rough patch at the moment.

In 2012 Australia was so confident of whipping Britain in the London Olympics that their sports minister made a wager with ours, which she went on to lose.  But the decline had started earlier, as the following tables show:

Athens 2004

 Overall PositionGoldSilverBronzeTotal
Great Britain10th991230

Beijing 2008

 Overall PositionGoldSilverBronzeTotal
Great Britain4th19131547

London 2012

 Overall PositionGoldSilverBronzeTotal
Great Britain3rd29171965

Rio de Janeiro 2016

 Overall PositionGoldSilverBronzeTotal
Great Britain2nd27231767

As Britain’s success grew, Australia disappeared into the ranks of the also-rans.  My guess would be that Australia pioneered a lot of professional sporting techniques – particularly in swimming where they used to do extremely well – and had world-class coaches who were ahead of their time, plus generous funding for their Olympic sports programmes.  Now that other countries have matched or exceeded the funding and adopted professional training regimes, as well as hire a lot of Australian swimming coaches, the Australians don’t have the edge and their small population isn’t producing enough talent to dominate like they used to.

Australia is also going through a low point in Rugby Union, which I don’t think is a mere blip.  Following a strong showing in the 2015 RWC (where they avoided South Africa and rarely worried the Kiwis in the final), their Super XV franchises did spectacularly badly the following season:

Were it not for the wildcard system that ensures the playoffs are not dominated by the Kiwis, the Brumbies – Australia’s best side – would have finished joint 7th on points and miles adrift of 5 of the 6 New Zealand sides.  The Brumbies got dumped out of the knockout stages in the first round, and that was the Australian effort over for 2016.

But what made it far worse was that halfway through the season England toured Australia for a 3-test series and went back home having whitewashed their hosts.  For Australia to be beaten 3-0 by a Northern Hemisphere touring side was unprecedented, and it was especially perplexing because Australia had comprehensively beaten an England team made up of much the same players on their home ground in the Rugby World Cup the previous year.  Only in the intervening period the English Rugby Union had snaffled the wily Australian coach Eddie Jones who had made few personnel changes but utterly altered the mindset and gameplay to a degree Australia did not appreciate until it was too late.  And it that weren’t bad enough, the next time the Australian national team pulled on their jerseys they received a 42-8 thrashing on their home turf at the hands of an All Black side which seems to only get better with each passing year.

Traditionally Australia can turn to cricket to feel good about themselves sports-wise, but unfortunately they’ve just been beaten 3-0 in a test series in Sri Lanka: up until this tour, Sri Lanka had managed to beat Australia just once in test matches, back in 1999.  What must worry the Australian selectors and fans is not that this record has been broken, but that the players looked utterly clueless against a Sri Lankan side who had been all but written off with the recent retirement of three of their greatest ever players.  Today the news is that Australia’s captain Steven Smith is going home to “rest” with the ODI series sitting at 1-1 with 3 more to play, which is drawing a lot of criticism from fans who have been brought up on stories of Border, Taylor, and Waugh eating barbed wire for breakfast.  There is much discussion in Australian cricket regarding their apparent practice of using fast and bouncy drop-in pitches at home to guarantee success against visiting sides, which is leaving them hopelessly unprepared for swinging conditions in England or the spin of the sub-continent.  By contrast, England’s humiliating exit from the 2015 ICC World Cup resulted in the wholesale firing of the coaching staff and the appointment of the experienced and canny Trevor Bayliss – an Australian – who immediately turned the team’s fortunes around by winning the ODI series against the more fancied New Zealand.

I daresay Australian sport will pull itself out of this hole and start winning things again, but they might find they are going to have to work a lot harder than previously to do so: the rest of the world, particularly England/Great Britain, has caught up by adopting their methods and hiring their coaches.

Brits Abroad

You’ve got to love the British press:

England fan fighting for his life and dozens more injured as English fans and Russian thugs clash at Euro 2016 in Marseille

The English were fans.  The Russians were thugs.  Presumably no Englishman in Marseille last night displayed thuggish behaviour, and no Russian showed the slightest interest in football.

Aye, they look like a bunch out to enjoy the beautiful game.

There’s another word the British press and authorities like to use in such situations:

Sir Julian King, Britain’s ambassador to France tweeted that several Britons were being kept in hospital overnight.

If ever a British citizen is in some sort of strife abroad, the immediate assumption is he is wholly innocent and the hapless victim of overseas thuggery, an incompetent and heavy-handed local police force, or a corrupt foreign justice system, in which case it is necessary for the British press to thereafter refer to him as a “Briton”. (The best example of this is in the reporting and government statements relating to the conviction of Liverpool fan Michael Shields in Bulgaria in 2005.)

This reminds me of the summer of 2010 which I spent in Phuket, Thailand hanging out in expat bars all day (and all night, if I’m being truthful).   One of the regulars who used to come into my favourite bar was a dangerous-looking thug from Manchester, whose reputation for fighting, drug-dealing, treachery, and other unsavoury behaviour preceded him by a good three miles.  Typically he would come into the bar at 11am ready to start the day’s drinking and recount the story of what happened the night before, usually prompted by somebody asking why he was sporting some new injury or other.  His recollections always followed the same format:

“I was walking along the street near the boxing stadium minding my own business when a bunch of Belgians started kicking off…I punched one of them, but the others got behind me and I fell down and one of them kicked me in the head.”

“We were in a bar and some Germans started a fight with us…you know what the Germans are like…and we all ended up being thrown out when the police arrived.”

“I was riding my scooter down the road and I ran into a bunch of guys…Spanish or Greeks, I think…same thing…and one of them threw a bottle at me, so I picked up a brick and threw it at him, and it all kicked off.  The police came and I had to spend the night in the cells.”

I detected a pattern here.  Now he might have been telling the truth.  And I might be the Dalai Lama.  But what I never heard, in all my time in Phuket or indeed ever in my life, was a story told to me by non-Brit complaining of getting into a fight with another non-Brit.  For whatever reason, Frenchmen don’t seem to end up fighting Spaniards in beach resorts and Germans somehow manage to rub along all right with Italians on holiday without kicking the shit out of one another.  The common element in all the fighting in beach resorts across the world, particularly the Mediterranean, is the presence of young Brits.  Little surprise then that the only trouble seen thus far at the Euro 2016 tournament features the same demographic.

Eddie the Embarrassing Eagle

Over at the film blog Mostly Film there is a post on a new film about Eddie the Eagle.  For those unfamiliar with the background story, Eddie the Eagle is the nickname given to Michael “Eddie” Edwards who represented Great Britain in the ski-jumping in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Calgary.  He became famous for being utterly shite – he finished last in both the 70m and 90m events.  As Mostly Film recalls:

Do you remember Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards? The British love an underdog, so the cliche goes, and Eddie was the lowest dog of all: the ski-jumper who was never good enough to compete in the Winter Olympics, let alone win, but who somehow won the heart not just of a nation but of the world when he came last, twice, at Calgary in 1988.

I was 11 years old at the time, but I remember the coverage in the British media.  We seemed almost proud of the fact that he needed to wear six pairs of socks to make his boots fit, and that his glasses (worn under his goggles) steamed up.  There is no doubt that Eddie the Eagle captured the hearts of the British public.  But the world?  I’m not so sure.

There is an annoying habit of Brits whereby they assume others perceive them as they see themselves.  One of the most egregious examples of this is the constant refrain that the NHS is “the envy of the world”.   This claim would carry a lot more weight if it were foreigners expressing it and not Brits, and especially not those Brits who have a personal interest in the continuation of the NHS in its current form.  Alas, if foreigners genuinely do hold the NHS in such high regard they seem reluctant to say so.

Another example can be found in this old BBC article:

With all the attention paid to this year’s Crufts dog show, the UK does not look like losing its unique reputation as a nation of animal lovers.

Despite having lived abroad for almost 13 years, I have never once heard a foreigner refer to Britain as a nation of animal lovers.  Britain’s reputation seems to be one for drinking and fighting insofar as these are the activities most often commented on by foreigners who have visited our fair Isle, or had the misfortune to run into a bunch of us on holiday.

I’m therefore a little skeptical that Eddie the Eagle was seen by the rest of the world through the same feel-good lenses the Brits had on at the time.  Whereas the British might see themselves as the plucky underdog in certain situations, it is probably a lot harder for foreigners to apply this label to a nation which recently had an empire which spanned the globe, influenced so much of the modern world, and remains a wealthy and reasonably powerful country capable of dropping bombs on uppity dark folk.  The story of Eddie the Eagle was recalled by the media when the swimmer Eric Moussambani failed so charmingly in the 2000 summer Olympics, earning him the moniker of Eric the Eel.  But the crucial difference was that Moussambani was from Equatorial Guineau, which few had ever heard of let alone could place on a map, and not a divisive former superpower with the 5th or 6th largest economy and a permanent seat on the UN security council.

I haven’t actually canvassed the opinions of what foreigners think of Eddie the Eagle, but I suspect he invokes ridicule rather than good-natured humour.  But one friend of mine, a Norwegian, did offer his opinion thusly:

“You’re Great Britain! That’s the best you could find? He was a fucking embarrassment!”

I get why the Brits adored Eddie the Eagle, but I can’t help but find myself agreeing, at least partly, with the sentiments above.  Britain cannot and will not ever be viewed as a plucky underdog by the rest of the world, and we should probably be a bit less quick to assume others share our sense of smug self-satisfaction.

England Rugby Inches Forward

Despite my being a committed Welsh fan when it comes to the game of Rugby Union, I must congratulate England on their Six Nations win over France on Saturday which clinched them the Grand Slam, their first in 13 years.  England deserved both the win and the championship, as all the other teams fell short at crucial periods.

Since England crashed out of the Rugby World Cup last year, I have been somewhat sympathetic to their fortunes as I see a revival of England as crucial to improving the standards of Northern Hemisphere rugby.  Despite England having won the RWC in 2003, the last tournament showed just how far the North-South gap had become with the semi-finalists all coming from the South as the Northern hopefuls were swept aside (although Scotland were very unlucky not to beat Australia).  In order to wrest the trophy back from the Southern Hemisphere we will need both England and France to be genuine contenders in future tournaments.  Wales or Ireland might manage to win the competition if the stars align for them, but it will be an incredibly tough task for them to do if the other Northern teams are not able to take one or two of the Southern giants out of the tournament in the process.  Wales or Ireland simply cannot be relied upon to beat two of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa in successive matches.

My point is that it is in Wales’ interests for England and France to get their act together on the international rugby stage.  Wales might find it harder to win another Six Nations against a much-improved England, but nothing important is going to be achieved by Wales beating an under-performing England: Wales won the Grand Slam in 2005, 2008, and 2012 and the Six Nations in 2013, yet still failed to mount a serious challenge to Southern Hemisphere opposition in competitions or tour matches.  With its limited number of players and resources, Wales can’t be expected to do much more as things stand.  So it falls to England, and also France, with their far greater player pool and finances to drive up the standards and pull Wales, Ireland, and Scotland along with them.  What is remarkable about Saturday’s Grand Slam win for England is that it is their first since they won the RWC in 2003: with their size and resources, England should be exerting near dominance over the Six Nations year in, year out.

Alas, I think there is some way to go even for England.  I watched most of the Six Nations games this year, and at the same time watched the Super Rugby going on in the Southern Hemisphere.  The difference in standards was stark, and I’ll take one facet of the game as an example.  In Super Rugby, you routinely see the play rapidly shifted out wide with passes being flung 10-15m or more which usually go straight to hand, taken by the receiving player right in front of his chest when he is running at full tilt.  In the Six Nations, far too many “long” passes were being taken over the head, down by the ankles, or were knocked-on.  In a pattern which was repeated all over the tournament, at a crucial stage in the England v Wales match, Jamie Roberts was forced to stop his run in an attacking position and catch a ball that was sailing a metre over his head.  By the time he’d done so he was brought down in short order by the defending players.  A casual observer (such as I am) would conclude that the simple ball-handling skills of the Northern Hemisphere teams is nowhere near the standard of their Southern Hemisphere counterparts.  If they don’t fix the basic issues such as this, we can forget about the Webb Ellis trophy coming this way again any time soon.

(Interestingly, watching the fortunes of the English soccer team over the past two decades one is also forced to conclude that those players also lack the basic passing and ball control skills of, well, pretty much everybody else.)

What next for England rugby?

A year or two ago it occurred to me that England’s winning the Rugby World Cup in 2003 might condemn them to never winning it again in the same manner that the football side’s win in 1966 appears to have done.

In the RWC tournaments before 2003, England would go in with little real prospect of winning but being happy to see how far they could get before being undone by one of the Southern Hemisphere powerhouses.  But 2003 was different: England went into that competition probably being the best side, very little weakness in any given position, and the team that the others wanted to avoid.  When they encountered South Africa in the group stages, England were favourites and duly obliged by winning 25-6.  Only Australia in the final got anywhere near them, with their closest game up to that point being their 28-17 defeat of Wales.

In the summer of 2003, a few months before the rugby world cup, England toured Australia and New Zealand where they beat both of them in full tests.  Any side that can pull off successive wins over Australia and New Zealand is special, and one that can do it away from home very special indeed.  In 2000, England had drawn a two-test away series in South Africa, so all three Southern Hemisphere teams had succumbed at home to the England of that era.  In the home “Autumn” internationals, England beat Australia and South Africa in 2000, 2001, and 2002 and New Zealand in 2002 (for some reason they didn’t play NZ in 2000 and 2001).  In other words, England in the 2000 RWC were an exceptional side who were hitting their peak after a sustained run which saw them see off their main rivals multiple times in the preceding years.  The team featured exceptional players and were coached by a chap who knew what he was doing.  This is why I, as a Wales fan who generally doesn’t enjoy England’s success on the rugby pitch, thought they thoroughly deserved that 2003 win.  Few will contend they were not the best side in the competition, in a year when other sides were not especially weak either.

The problem is, English fans quickly slipped into a mentality that because they have won it before then they can win it again.  Winning rugby world cups is not like rolling dice, it is not down to chance and probability where once an impossibility is ruled out then a recurrence can be expected.  Any team can win a major sports trophy if the stars align for them – look at Greece in the UEFA Euro 2004 championships who came out of nowhere to win the whole thing – but normally the sides who are in the running for overall victory have players and a team which, above everything else, simply perform well.  I have spent years watching English football fans believing – genuinely – that they have a good chance of winning a major trophy with a team that consists of mediocre players who don’t play very well together.  And now England rugby fans seem to have gone the same way: any criticism of England and how they play gets met with the same curious mix of nationalistic aggression and childlike optimism, which inevitably turns to disbelief and disappointment when they crash out.

What they should have been doing is listening to what the other teams think.  Were South Africa, New Zealand, or Australia looking nervously at England, hoping to avoid them in the draw?  Nope.  Australia went into the game reasonably confident they could beat England on their own ground.  They certainly weren’t afraid, and nor will they be much concerned about Wales when they play on Saturday.  Wales go into world cups hoping our team clicks enough to pull off an upset and get as far as we can, which we did very well in 2011.  We probably realise that it would take a Greece-style upset for us to win the rugby world cup, but England – with its financial might and far larger resource pool – should be aiming to produce a team that can contend, as they did in 2003, without lucky draws and shock upsets.  Instead they’ve opted for the worst of both worlds: unrealistic expectations of getting to the semis or final without making the necessary tough decisions (a foreign coach, perhaps?) to ensure they are genuine contenders.

Jeez, Lancaster turned up to this world cup not even knowing what his best XV is.  No team is going to win much unless the coach knows who his best players are in each position and, assuming everyone is fit, who will run out on match day.  The decision to include Sam Burgess in the squad, let alone the starting team, is looking more ridiculous by the day.  No doubt Lancaster was under huge pressure from the English RFU to promote this brilliant rugby league player who, for reasons known only to themselves, they prised from the Rabbitohs (where he was happy playing with his three brothers) and subsidised his move to Bath to play a different sport.  True, it worked for Jason Robinson: but it didn’t work for Henry Paul, Andy Farrell, and Iestyn Harris.  Serious teams competing in the rugby world cup do not include league-converts who have done nothing to prove themselves in the fifteen-man game.  What next for Sam Burgess, I wonder?

England have done themselves no favours at all by hyping Chris Robshaw for all he’s worth.  In the 2013 Six Nations, English commentator Brian Moore was opining in the press that Robshaw should be given the captaincy for the Lions tour to Australia that autumn, citing his Man of the Match performances as support for this view.  What he neglected to remind everyone is that it was Brian Moore himself, working for the BBC, who had bestowed these Man of the Match awards on Robshaw.  As it happened, England were thrashed by Wales in the final game of the Six Nations and Robshaw never even made the Lions squad.  Warren Gatland’s decision to omit him appeared to pay off as his side came home victorious having won the series 2-1.

Another supposed shoo-in for the Lions was Owen Farrell, who appeared to be selected for England largely on the basis that he is a good-looking chap and a perfect replacement for Johnny Wilkinson as the “housewives’ favourite”.  Oh, and his Dad just happens to be one of the coaches.  True, Farrell can kick well – but so could Leigh Halfpenny and Jonathan Sexton, so he was surplus to requirements in the Lions starting XV.  Fast-forward to last Saturday night and his selection in the England starting XV – and his bizarre shift out to the wing – was looking more like a moment of madness than an inspired choice by Stuart Lancaster.  As with Robshaw, somebody should have seen this coming a lot sooner and done something about it.

There’s too much sentimentality holding back English rugby.  Wales need it, because we don’t have the throughput of players, so babbling on about pride and passion is a handy addition to the genuine skills of the likes of Dan Biggar and Alun Wyn Jones (although you rarely hear any sentimentality from Gatland himself).  It is hard to see how Wales could do much more than play their skins out and hope they can pull off an upset – as they did against England the weekend previously – which will see them through to the next round.  Rinse and repeat as the competition progresses and the opposition get tougher and more antipodean.  But England have the population, youth structure, and financial resources to be able to challenge for a world cup without needing an easy pool, a friendly ref, or a marginal call from the TMO.  They don’t need Victoria Crosses on their shirts, and to impose off-field standards of conduct reminiscent of a 1920s convent (one of the most effective players for Australia was, as usual, Kurtley Beale, who has been cast into the wilderness more times than I can remember for various infractions, only to return each time somebody sensible decided they actually needed somebody who is very skillful and lightning fast).  Johnny Wilkinson was a nice bloke, but also happened to be a great player.  David Campese was a complete arsehole even by Australian standards, but also happened to be a great player.  See the pattern here?

I can’t help thinking that, as with so much in England and corporate life in general (and, having seen the ECB’s treatment of Kevin Pietersen I don’t believe national sporting organisations are much different from your average big company these days), dissent has been frowned upon, conformity and obedience rewarded, and any maverick player who might have provided the spark of creativity kept well away from a white jumper.  Beale would walk into the England team on playing ability, but would they have picked him anyway?  Or worried too much about the squeaky clean image being tarnished and the corporate sponsors upset?

England need a new coach, preferably a mercenary foreign one who isn’t interested in sentimentality and will pick the best fifteen Englishmen who currently play the game, and to hell with the rest.  Otherwise in 2033 we’ll be subject to another round of “30 years of hurt” and increasingly desperate cries of “but this was going to be our year”.  Over to you, RFU.

(Incidentally, England’s reaching the RWC final in 2007 probably did them as much damage insofar as expectations go: a very average team managed to make the game so interminably dull followed by last-minute penalty for a minor infringement that they somehow got to the final, and every English fan thought this was not only deserved, but a feat up there with the 2003 victory. It wasn’t, and was never going to be – foot in touch or not.)

Wobbling Mathilda

In the wake of their drubbing at Trent Bridge which resulted in them losing the Ashes to England, the whole Australian cricketing setup seems to be collapsing in a heap.  When a team is winning, the niggles between team members, conflicts between the players and support staff, and more serious structural issues tend to get ignored, but when a team is losing – particularly when they are losing in spectacular fashion – all of these come to the fore.  Nobody demonstrated this better than England after their losing 5-0 in Australia in 2013/14: that series cost us not only the Ashes, but terminated the career of our most reliable No. 3 batsmen who once looked as impossible to remove as Dravid, our wicketkeeper-batsman who only recently had won a Player of the Year Award and had saved us a test match in New Zealand, and the best spin bowler we’d ever had.  The loss kick-started a process which saw the departure of our most talented batsman in a generation, the departure of our coach, batting coach, and bowling coaches, and a very messy and highly publicised airing of dirty laundry which was still going on weeks before this summer’s cricket season started.

Australia’s internal problems might not result in so spectacular a collapse, but they are looking very shaky.  The captain has already gone, leaving the team in the hands of a chap who came into the series being touted as the world’s best batsman and now has people wondering if he shouldn’t be in the team as a part time leggy batting at 8.  If he grows a long, dark beard he might just do that.  Probably their only specialist test batsman, Chris Rogers, has announced his retirement which must surely leave the Australian selectors with a bigger headache than who will replace Clarke.  There appear to be internal divisions over whether Brad Haddin should have been brought back for the Edgbaston test which, given his retirement after the series, appear to be more about who he was and how much others liked him rather than what he could do out in the middle.  A sort of reverse KP, if you will.

Things couldn’t have gotten much worse for Australia after Trent Bridge, but they did when they visited Northamptonshire, who are struggling in the second division, and found themselves at 87/5 and thanking their lucky stars that fast bowler Pat Cummins managed to put on 82 runs to save the match.  The star of the show, who scored 142 not out against Siddle, Cummins, Watson, Lyon, and Marsh before taking the wickets of Voges, Neville, and Siddle for 38 runs conceded, was ironically an Australian.  This is how his Cricinfo biography reads:

Steven Crook, an Australian-born skiddy seam bowler and hard-hitting lower-order batsmen, started his first-class career at Lancashire but had limited chances to show his worth. After a loan move to Northamptonshire at the end of the 2005 season, he made a permanent switch for 2006 where he earned greater chances in the one-day arena. Injury ravaged much of his time at Northants but he found other outlets to express himself as a lead singer of the band Juliet the Sun.

So the Australian team – who arrived on these shores being touted as one of the greatest sides ever assembled – get undone with both bat and ball by a part-time singer.

And it gets worse.  As TNA points out, the Australians still complaining about the pitches they have encountered, this accusing the English of blatant pitch-doctoring at the Oval.  This is beyond pathetic.  Could you imagine Steve Waugh, David Boon, or Justin Langer whining about this?  Or Brett Lee complaining there was too much movement in the pitch?

Say what you want about England’s capitulation in the 2013/14 Ashes (and it was really pathetic), we never looked to blame anything other than Mitchell Johnson’s left arm and our own failings for the results.  As I noticed when I lived in Melbourne, the whole “whinging pom” epithet is far more of a reflection of Australians than it is a criticism of the British.  Nowhere has this been better demonstrated than this tour, which is fast turning the Australians from an unlikeable team that wins to a laughable team that can’t.  Regardless of what happens at the Oval, I think we will see further damage wrought before things start to improve.  You’d back Australia to take the ODI series, but with the Ashes secure and following their success against New Zealand with their new-found aggression under Eoin Morgan, England will be relishing the opportunity to upset an apple cart or two.  Even a single big loss in the ODIs will open up fresh wounds in the Australian camp, ahead of a home series against New Zealand who enjoy the services of two of the finest swing bowlers in the world.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying this immensely.

Ashes 2015: Fourth Test

It took Australia less than two hours to throw the Ashes away on the morning of the fourth test at Trent Bridge, with Jimmy Anderson’s absence being a complete irrelevance in the wake of Stuart Broad’s incredible 8/15 and a series of shots played by Australian batsmen that varied from appalling to diabolical.  I wasn’t able to watch it but followed it on CricInfo, and hence witnessed the capitulation in text form.  When I watched the highlights when I got home, I saw how bad it was.

The balls that the Australians should have left got edged to slip, and the ones they left hit the top of off stump.  Broad bowled well – this was his home ground, after all – and produced some wonderful swinging deliveries, as did Wood and Finn in support (Stokes didn’t even get a chance to warm up), but most of these balls should have been left well alone.  I think it was Brian Lara who once said the first hour belongs to the bowler.  Somebody commented a few years back that things had changed so much that now even the first ball doesn’t belong to the bowler.  The Australian collapse showed that Lara was right all along.

It wasn’t just the hyper-aggressiveness that was Australia’s downfall, it was also a lack of intelligence and technique.  As an Australian friend pointed out shortly afterwards, playing in the IPL does not give you a bad technique, but it does allow people with bad techniques to make a lot of money.  With the money comes reputation, and test selection inevitably follows.  How else do you explain Glenn Maxwell being awarded a Baggy Green?   A generation or two ago Australians would have played in the English County Championship and gotten used to the conditions over there.  Now they all play Shield, BBL, and IPL and turn up in England without even knowing what English conditions are, let alone having learned to play in them.  Take a look at this post-match interview with Steve Smith:

Australia’s captain-elect Steven Smith has admitted that he has been drawn into playing strokes too often by the English skill of bending the ball on both directions, and hopes that his Australian fast men can learn to replicate the trick.

You mean nobody told him this before he arrived?!  How many ex-players are in the Australian setup, and nobody even bothered telling them what to expect?  The great Australian teams of 10-20 years ago not only knew what to expect, but had learned with great skill and patience to flourish in such conditions, which is what made them so special.  Having not even been aware of what technique is required in England, never mind actually master it, it is hardly surprising the Australians fell apart.  Rogers and Voges (in their second innings) were the only ones who looked like test batsmen, and by pure coincidence they have both played a lot of County cricket.

But they were also dumb, and Shane Warne was livid about this in the commentary.  In the second innings, just before tea, Steve Smith smashed a wide ball from Broad to the cover boundary.  So Cook told Stokes to move a few metres to his right and stand in the trajectory of the previous stroke, before Broad bowled exactly the same ball.  Smith duly obliged by smashing exactly the same shot, only this time there was a tattooed, ginger Ben Stokes with buckets for hands between him and the boundary rope.  Warne was livid because at that point in the game, just before tea and having just lost a couple of wickets, Smith should have been looking to ride it out until the break and go back out afterwards prepared to soldier on.  Scoring runs just wasn’t important right then.  He was also angry because Smith was too dense to figure out that Stokes had moved position precisely to take a catch of a repeat shot.  But Smith still doesn’t get it, here’s what he said afterwards:

There has been criticism of the second-innings stroke, a dismissal that Shane Warne described as “horrific”, and Smith said his weight had been poorly distributed for the shot. But he defended his positive approach, arguing that a ball there to be hit to the boundary needed to be addressed that way no matter how many balls a batsman has faced up to.

“If you get a loose ball, you have to hit it,” he said. “I hit two half-volleys for four and the one that I got out to in the second innings was pretty much the same. It was there to hit for four, I just didn’t execute it well. My weight was a bit back, looking back at it. And that’s something I’m trying to work on with my technique – to get my weight going forward. It’s something that is pretty crucial here in England on the slower wickets as well.”

Let’s read that again:

It was there to hit for four, I just didn’t execute it well.

You hit it straight to a fielder who had been placed there in the hope that you would hit the ball straight to him, the captain having banked on your belief that “if you get a loose ball, you have to hit it”.  Smith’s a good player, but this is extraordinarily stupid.  Everyone plays dumb shots, few defend them in hindsight.

Smith’s wasn’t the only dumb shot.  Warner, despite his second innings quick-fire 64, got himself out playing a shot that every commentator I read or listened to struggled to describe.  The beauty of Warner is you know that no matter how quickly he scores he is going to gift his wicket before the two hour mark, so all you have to do is keep an eye on how many runs he makes.  And if runs aren’t an issue – which they weren’t in the second innings – then you just need to wait.  Rogers, for all his talent, isn’t much different: he is very good at getting past 50, and very poor at getting to 100.  Show enough patience, and he’ll get himself out soon enough.

I don’t recall too much of the England innings, other than Lyth failed (again), Cook got himself out just when everyone was hoping he’d go on to anchor the innings with a massive score (again), and Root stepped up and with a huge grin grabbed hold of the match and did with the bat what Broad had done a couple of hours earlier with the ball.  Bairstow’s contribution of 74 was extremely handy for both him and the team, but with Stokes and Buttler both going cheaply it fell to Broad and Ali to nudge the score to a point where Australia were really going to struggle.  Australia’s bowling wasn’t that bad, but it was nowhere near good enough to turn a first innings score of 60 into a match-saving position.  England’s batting has not been terrible this series, but it’s not been very good either.  Root and Ali have been the stand-out players, but it ought to worry England that Cook keeps getting out just as he looks to be set for a big score, Lyth has consistently failed to handle a bowling attack which Broad has refound some form against (albeit against an older ball and more weary/depressed bowlers), Bell is still inconsistent and Buttler hasn’t done in tests what we saw him do in ODIs, even when he’s been under very little pressure.

When it comes to batting England have some work to do, but they ought to be pretty pleased with their bowling.  Mark Wood has looked good this series albeit tired at times, and the return to form of Steven Finn will cheer them no end.  Ben Stokes put in a fantastic display to knock over Rogers, Warner, and Marsh in quick succession in the second innings, proving he is becoming more and more like a genuine all-rounder.  If England can keep Moeen Ali improving to the point he becomes a reliable spin bowler, they can look forward to a bright future in the bowling department.

Australia have bigger issues, the main one being they need to stop looking for excuses.  First it was the pitch, then it was the pitches, then it was losing the toss.  Given Australia have relied upon winning the toss in order to win anything over the past few years, this last one is laughable.  Sorry, but losing the toss doesn’t make a batsman swash at a wide delivery three balls before tea.  Then Ian Healy said the accompanying families were a distraction, perhaps fondly recalling the days when a travelling cricket team could nail local waitresses without their wives finding out.  They arrived with considerable hubris, underestimated their opponents from the beginning, dispensed with proper, lengthy preparation, shrugged when thumped in Cardiff, arrogantly assumed Lord’s was “business as usual”, learned nothing from their thrashing at Edgbaston and hit what they must hope is rock bottom at Trent Bridge.  Their captain is on the way out, seemingly intent on making sure all discussion surrounding Australian cricket for the next few weeks is about him, and their best batsman is supposedly retiring as well.  A lot of people are saying that Siddle should have played at Trent Bridge, and perhaps he should, but he is no spring chicken either.  With Hazlewood rather unsurprisingly not turning into Glenn McGrath over the course of one series of international cricket, Australia seem to be a bit stuck.  Others have mentioned Pat Cummins, but he’s an impact bowler and some may have missed this, but Australia have enough of them already.  The two Marshes are the answer to a question nobody asked, Voges hasn’t filled the gap he was brought in to fill, and Warner is, in my opinion, a walking wicket outside of Australia and South Africa.  Neville is probably the only half-positive thing in the Australian team, looking like a handy enough wicket keeper whose batting will likely improve.  Again, for all the talk of bringing Haddin back in, he was set to retire too.

England ought to go out and have some fun at the Oval, and if they do it might be enough to overcome a demoralised and shaken Australian team.  But Australia have enough players who will be up for one final fight, particularly those who probably won’t play another test again, and so an upset is still possible.  What I’d like to see is England win the toss and bat first on pitch with some movement, thus giving their batsmen a proper test on a pitch that suits the bowlers.  If Cook can snaffle a century under those conditions, Australia will have been well and truly seen off with no more excuses.