Thumping Australia is grand; thumping Australia without playing well almost feels like cheating. But in a good way. This is where England find themselves today. The Ashes are safe for another few months and England have not had to be very good to keep them. Which is just as well, frankly, since even though they are unbeaten in 12 tests England are not quite as good a side as they like to think they are.
They are good enough to defeat these hapless Australians, however. The Australians are basically New Zealand in disguise. Like New Zealand they are a side good enough to get themselves into good positions but not a side good enough to take advantage of those good positions. So, yes, they have had their moments in this series but we should expect that just as we should appreciate that the repeated failure to press home advantages is a reliable indicator of a side that’s playing at a level one step beyond its abilities. That’s Australia at the moment.
If you’ve ever played club cricket you’ll know about this. It’s hardly unusual to find sides with just two batsmen and two bowlers. Get the batsman out early and see off the two bowlers and you can gorge yourselves the rest of the time. Australia are a bit like that at present. Except they’ve only got one batsman. Get Michael Clarke out and see off Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle and the game is pretty much done. I exaggerate but only a little.
No-one has ever been knighted for beating New Zealand so we should keep all this in mind even as we celebrate keeping the little urn safe for a few more months. And, really, there is very little difference between the Aussies and the Kiwis. Clarke and Harris and Siddle would stroll into any combined antipodean XI but the rest of the places (especially in the absence of James Pattinson) might as well be filled by lottery.
Really, Australia’s batting is that ordinary. Consider these career averages: Chris Rogers 36, David Warner 38, Usman Khawaja 25, Steve Smith 29, Shane Watson 34, Brad Haddin 34.
Now compare them with these numbers: Peter Fulton 29, Hamish Rutherford 36, Kane Williamson 31, Ross Taylor 42, Dean Brownlie 29, Brendon McCullum 35, BJ Watling 29.
So, Clarke – who averages 52 – excluded, there’s not very much difference between the Aussie batting order at Durham and the line-up New Zealand fielded in England earlier this summer. (Though Chris Rogers is better than his figures might suggest.) We give the Australians the benefit of the doubt because they are Australians and we struggle to comprehend a world in which their batting order might be as limited as, well, New Zealand’s.
Then again, perhaps we should respect New Zealand a little more. I mean their top seven has made 22 test centuries. The non-Clarke Australians have a collective nine test hundreds (by comparison Matt Prior has seven). Moreover those 22 Kiwi tons have come at a rate of one every 16 test innings. This is not very good since, generally speaking, you’d hope your top order was scoring a 100 at least once every ten innings or so but it is, as we shall see, much better than the non-Clarke Aussies have done. They have nine test centuries from 251 innings. Which works out to one hundred every 27.8 innings.
Now a century is obviously a pretty arbitrary figure upon which to base a judgement. But it has the advantages of being easy to understand and the kind of significant achievement that tend to have a hefty impact on a match. Of course there are times when 40 may be a greater or more useful achievement than 100 but as a general rule the rate at which batsmen score hundreds is a pretty reliable indicator of class.
So say this for these Australians: they are a pretty classless bunch. None of this means they won’t suddenly come good at the Oval or that they won’t pose a stiffer challenge this winter. They might and they surely must. But we should not expect them to become different players overnight. They are what they are. And they are very ordinary.
Even ordinary batsmen will have glorious moments. But they are liable to come but once a series and sometimes not even that frequently. Only once have Australia passed 300 runs this series. When you fail to reach 300 runs seven times in eight innings your problem is not a bug, your problem is a feature.
On his day Steve Smith can bat tremendously well. The same is true of David Warner. The problem is that their day is not likely to come around as often as, say, Kevin Pietersen’s day or Ian Bell’s day. Consistency matters just as much as ceiling. Or, rather, it is consistency of achievement that marks the better players out from the merely good ones.
And, as we have seen in this series, if you get Michael Clarke out Australia will crumble. Even Allan Border had a better supporting cast than this. Indeed when Clarke bats at four his career average (52) is 27 points better than the man ahead of him (Khawaja) and 23 points better than that of the man behind him (Smith). There can’t have been many greater discrepancies between batting neighbours since the days of Bradman.
Australia may play like New Zealand but they are still Australia and so there are still no good grounds for feeling sorry for them. No Englishman should be embarrassed by beating Australia. This wheel has turned before; it will turn again. That’s the nature of the game. And of history.
In the long years of Australian dominance England supporters could at least console themselves with the thought they were being hammered by one of the great sides. Warne, McGrath and Gilchrist were but the brightest lights in an Australian constellation that seemed liable to burn forever. This Aussie mob don’t even have that consolation. England are a damn good but not a great side.
In Pietersen, Cook, Prior, Swann and Anderson they have performers as good at what they do as any England have selected in my cricket-watching life (ie since 1981). Bell and Broad are capable of touching great heights too. Nevertheless, they are a solid rather than spectacular side. There is nothing wrong with being solid and they are quite plainly a team that believes they will, eventually, find a way to unlock any problem. Cook is not an imaginative captain and the strain of only ever playing four bowlers will tell eventually. Similarly while we all expect Joe Root to become a real test player there is no guarantee he will do so. Ditto for Bairstow and, indeed, for wee James Taylor. The batting is not as deep as we might like it to be.
Still, it is no small thing to defeat Australia in this fashion even without major contributions from Cook, Trott and Prior. England are carrying quite a number of passengers at present but it is a mark of their resilience that someone has always stepped up to make the telling contribution. And Cook, Trott and Prior will presumably return to form soon.
But, yes, make the most of these giddy days of English triumph for they cannot endure forever. The Aussie flag will fly again but for the present it is worth reminding ourselves that cricket need not be played at a superlative level to be superlatively gripping and entertaining. We can also, now, forgive Stuart Broad many of his past transgressions and his general chumpitude. About glorious time too.