“It looks like an overseas telephone number,” says Ian Botham as the broadcasters flash England’s scorecard up on the screen, the disdain in his voice you imagine reserved in near equal parts for both the succession of single-digit scores shown and the very concept of phone numbers being different abroad.
England are at it again. Having bowled Australia out for just 179 on Day One, they are eight wickets down with barely 50 runs on the scoreboard, by the time they have finished ‘batting’ they are all out for 67, the third time they have been dismissed for under 100 in 2019 alone. By the end of Day Two, the Ashes are all but gone.
It was not supposed to go like this. Battered physically and mentally by Jofra Archer’s fiery Lord’s debut last week, and shorn of batting demigod Steve Smith, Australia were expected to crumble at Headingley; instead under the blazing Leeds sun, it is England who collapsed in a heap once more.
None of this sadly should come as much of a surprise to England supporters, they have had a flashy yet deeply unreliable sports car of a batting lineup for some time, prone to breakdown at any moment – today, as against Ireland at Lord’s in July, and the West Indies at Bridgetown in January, it spontaneously burst into flames as well.
Australia, Josh Hazelwood, in particular, did bowl well, but not 67-all-out-well – and particularly not in what were the best batting conditions of the match so far – this was yet another dark day for English batting and one in which they were more than simply bystanders of their own downfall.
Years on from the retirements of Andrew Strauss and Jonathan Trott, and four home Tests into Alastair Cook’s, England are still no closer to sorting out the Rubix Cube puzzle of their top four – in fact they barely know what colour the tiles are supposed to be.
It is never a ringing endorsement of an opener’s suitability when his own coach has publicly stated that perhaps his future lies lower down the order, but, whatever Trevor Bayliss has said, still England persist with Jason Roy at the top – his dismissal going at the ball with hard hands early in the innings is a surprise to almost nobody.
Then comes Joe Root, England’s best batsman batting out of his preferred position and for what? So Joe Denly can have a better crack at nailing down the number four spot? England’s priorities could perhaps do with looking at.
For the second time in two innings Root could only manage a duck – in the same period Steve Smith has matched him run-for-run and he hasn’t even been playing.
Then came Denly, who when the ritual humiliation was over, finished as England’s top scorer with 12 – England’s lowest top score in an innings in their Test history – but, who barring a miracle in their second innings, seems unlikely to be in the side for the next Test. Given, he edged seven balls, played and missed at 16 and saw a dismissal for LBW narrowly overturned on DRS, all in the space of his 49-ball innings, as well as now possessing a Test average of 22, he can hardly have many complaints.
This was not a performance in isolation, according to CricViz it has been a historically bad year for England, their batting average in 2019 has now sunk to 21.96, the lowest in a calendar year since 1950, while their average runs per wicket this year is just 21.35 – the lowest in a calendar year since 1922 and the lowest in a year when they have played at least three Tests since 1909.
England's average runs per wicket in 2019 has now dropped to 21.35 - that is the lowest they have recorded in a calendar year since 1922 and the lowest in a year when they have played at least three Tests since 1909. #Ashes
— The CricViz Analyst (@cricvizanalyst) August 23, 2019
For a look at how to bat in these conditions, England only need to look at Marnus Labuschagne’s patient approach for inspiration, instead they once again were all too quick to throw their wickets away – Ben Stokes the most guilty in this regard, the ball that dismissed him was the widest from a fast bowler in his entire Test career.
This is an England side riddled with an aversion to cautious play, a team that this year loses a wicket every 37.70 defensive shots played – the worst record of any in world cricket – and once again they have paid the highest price, effectively ruling themselves out of an Ashes series that was threatening to bubble over into a serious contest.
By the time the smoke had cleared from the wreckage of another disastrous batting performance, England’s 67 all out ranked as their 12th lowest total of all time, the fourth-lowest at home and the lowest at Headingley – not since 1948 have they made a lower Ashes score. Only a performance to match Botham’s at this ground in 1981 can save England now, with odds surely so poor that not even Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh would bet against it.