England's ill-disciplined batsmen wilt but follow-on phobia lends helping hand

Paul Hayward
Mitchell Starc celebrates after taking the wicket of England batsman Jonny Bairstow on day three - AFP

Shortly before 5pm here, an Englishman in a Panama and an MCC tie watched Jonny Bairstow being caught and bowled by Mitchell Starc, and took a lick of his ice cream, which was in a race with England’s batting to see which could melt quicker.

The old gent wore the look of one who had seen all this before. He studied the TV screen impassively as Australians celebrated all around him. This England supporter grew up in the pre-social media age and may not have noticed a new competition taking shape: ‘Vote now for your favourite caught and bowled of the day’ – Starc against Bairstow or Nathan Lyon at Moeen Ali’s expense? Amid England’s misery, new entertainment forms were springing up.

There was an even better one to come. Misjudging the night-time conditions, Australia’s captain, Steve Smith, displayed the modern follow-on phobia and declined to force England to bat again. He paid for it with a flurry of Australian wickets: Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja, David Warner and his own. Before we knew it, Australia were sending in a nightwatchman  the cult hero, Nathan Lyon, who was treated like a dartboard by England’s bowlers. Complete Australian supremacy, jeopardised in 26 overs.

In Ashes cricket, there were never many places to hide. But now the onslaught is instant as well as merciless. At wake-up time in England on day three, everyone’s screen in Adelaide erupted with anger and despair from home. People were opening their eyes in Joe Root country to record England’s collapse (102-5 was a particular low point). Later they had some fun, with Jimmy Anderson ripping into the top of Australia’s bating order, under the lights, to alleviate the dread.

In a distant past, the waking English would have absorbed bad news through radio bulletins or television news round-ups. Now, every wicket, each failure, is piped on to their smartphones in easily digestible Twitter video packages. Bad shots or dropped catches become a mighty weapon in the hands of mass opinion.

After two days of ferocious sledging, which ended with dishonours even, the emphasis swung round to the cricket, with England losing the battle on that front

Everyone knows everything before the first hot drink of the day  and the verdicts soon fly the other way, crossing 10,000 miles to Australia. The gist of the judgments pouring into Adelaide after England had staggered to 227 all out was: ‘Here we go again.’ If it was painful for the bleary English back home, it was no more fun for the beery English here.

Caught and bowled, bought and sold, fraught and cold. England were all these things for most of a day that shifted the spotlight to an area where no touring team wants to see it nosing around: the psychological readiness of the players to absorb what Australia have to throw at them; the ‘character’ of the visiting side.

After two days of ferocious sledging, which ended with dishonours even, the emphasis swung round to the cricket, with England losing the battle on that front, though umpire Aleem Dar had to step between players again at the end.

The travelling England fans had little to cheer about on day three of the second test Credit: Getty Images

Already 1-0 down from Brisbane, England were desperate not to be 2-0 behind heading to Perth, a fast bowler’s paradise where they have not won since 1978. Ex-players talk of “unravellings” and “wheels coming off.” Eight days into a 25-day series was no time for the England caravan to see those wheels spin off in all directions.

From an overnight score of 29-1, England added only 198 runs for for nine wickets, with their No 9, Craig Overton, the top scorer with 41. Without the 66-run partnership between Overton and Chris Woakes  and the subsequent removal of four Australian batsmen  they would have tumbled into an abyss.

The Barmy Army printed a special T-shirt for this match. ‘A Hard Day Night’ was an accurate description. But the adapted line from the Beatles song was less prescient until Smith and company fell: ‘Working the Aussies like a dog.’ A sure sign that England were toiling was that their supporters started singing “please don’t take me home.” Defiance is usually the twin brother of defeat.

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There has been so much off-stage noise in this series that little attention has been paid to the individual match-ups, the quality of the two sides. But day three rendered those questions un-ignorable. The sequence of this match has been: England win the toss but put Australia in, then bowl too short and concede 442 for eight wickets (declared) with the small consolation that Smith is rattled by relentless sledging  and loses his second innings wicket for six. But in the midst of all this, there is no escaping that Mark Stoneman fell for 18, James Vince for two, Root for nine, Dawid Malan for 19 and Moeen and Bairstow for 25 and 21 respectively. While Australia were pulling off acrobatic catches, England were incapable of a disciplined pursuit of the 442 posted by their hosts.

“I’ll tell you what I think. I think we’re not that good,” announced Geoffrey Boycott on the radio. Yet nobody could call Australia world-beaters either, even if their bowling attack is better than England’s. Even Smith has seemed less formidable in this Test, where Shaun Marsh’s return to form saved a faltering Australian first innings.

England gave Australia a helping hand with the toss and Australia returned the favour by not enforcing the follow-on. With two batting line-ups of questionable quality, expect the unexpected.