For the England cricket team, defeat in Australia is curiously total. It’s not that England often lose the Ashes series 5–0. Again and again, English players go home after losing the Ashes series lesser men than they were when they boarded the plane at Heathrow.
It’s not quite the same when Australia lose in England. There’s a general feeling, at least in Australia, that when Australia lose in England, they do so because they have failed as cricketers. When England lose in Australia, it’s because they have failed as men.
It’s nothing to do with the childishness (but what else do you expect?) of David Warner, Australia’s vice-captain, who declared: “As soon as you step on that line, it’s war.” Big talk plays a relatively small part in it all.
Australia lost in England last time around, when the series turned on a near-miraculous spell of bowling from Stuart Broad in the Fourth Test, who took eight wickets for 15 runs as the Australians were all out for 60. It was devastating, but didn’t leave the Australians questioning who they were.
Broad showed supreme cricketing skill, and Australia were outplayed. Their batsmen had insufficient skill to cope with Broad’s masterpiece of swing bowling – but they didn’t feel they failed because they were lesser human beings. As a result, they were able to win the dead rubber and finish with the score at 3–2. It was a different kind of humiliation from the one inflicted on England the last time they were in Australia, in 2013/2014.
That was as serious a piece of sporting trauma as can be inflicted without physical harm. The casualties took other forms: Jonathan Trott and Graeme Swann both abandoned the tour before it was over, the former with mental health issues and the latter due to long-term injury problems. In the agonies of scapegoat-hunting that followed, England’s leading run-scorer in the series, Kevin Pietersen, was sacked.
England have only just recovered from the horrors of that tour four years ago – and now they have to go back. In Australia, they seldom face swinging conditions like the ones Broad exploited with such brilliance. The examination is more of speed and bounce; more specifically a test of physical courage.
In these circumstances, Australia love to resort to archetypes: tough, honest Aussies against stuck-up lily-livered Poms. This is perpetrated by the media, ex-players, crowds, passers-by in the streets and neighbouring tables in restaurants: a constant questioning of virility. And it gets to the players on a relatively deep level.
It follows that when England start to lose in Australia the whole thing starts to run like a snagged jumper. It doesn’t help that this time around England set off with three batting places vacant after a strange summer in which the new boys consistently failed. It helps still less that England’s great all-rounder, Ben Stokes – not stuck-up or lily-livered – had to stay at home after his punch-up and subsequent police involvement.
An England collapse is customary in Australia, though not inevitable. In 1986, a team labelled the worst side ever to leave these shores won an Ashes series. And I was there in Adelaide in 2010 when, after 13 balls of the match, Australia were three wickets down for two runs; England won the match, and the series. It happens. Sometimes. The current England team are capable of playing excellent cricket in difficult circumstances, so it might happen this time. The problem is that when an England team start to lose in Australia, they generally go the whole hog.
The Ashes: First Test Wednesday 11pm, Thursday and Friday 11.30pm BT Sport 1, Radio 5 Live Sports Extra/Radio 4 LW