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England can’t keep arriving at a gunfight with air rifles

It ended, as it so often does, in an airless room in the depths of the Lillee-Marsh Stand at the WACA Stadium in Perth.

Exactly the same space in which former captain Alastair Cook had discussed England’s Ashes surrender in 2013. Now it was Joe Root’s turn. As modern Antipodean tours tend to follow the same sequence of locations – Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne, Sydney – and Australia tend to triumph in cricket’s equivalent of straight sets, Perth is the place where the contest often ends. In the last six series in Australia, the WACA has seen the Ashes won on four occasions, and retained on another.

It will be different next time, though – because Perth will have a new arena. A different room at the Optus Stadium across the river in Burswood will host the inquest into England’s latest 3-0 defeat, certainly if they do not learn the lessons of this one. 

Australia regained the Ashes from sorry England with innings-and-41-run victory in Perth

England cannot continue flying south with the forlorn wish conditions have somehow changed; arriving in Australia with the same fast-medium purveyors of lateral movement and hoping a curator has taken pity and produced a friendly, seaming wicket.

Either English cricket admits the truth – that the Ashes are cricket’s equivalent of a football World Cup and the management must plan accordingly, or we just replace one claustrophobic little theatre with another, and the England captain pretends what we have just spent a month witnessing was an elite competition. It wasn’t. It was a mismatch. 

‘They drove home those key moments,’ said Root. ‘We haven’t been blown away; we haven’t been completely outplayed.’ That’s not true. He was coming off the back of a match that ended because England could not hold six wickets through one and a half sessions to get to the next bad weather pattern and a draw. A Test that was considered to be in the balance on the final day in Adelaide also didn’t make it to lunch.

Monday had started with much discussion around damp patches on the wicket – overnight leaks caused by the covers becoming unguyed, and some comical local unfamiliarity with heavy summer rain – but the Australians knew. If they could get one decent session firing at England’s remaining batsmen, the series was done. And that cannot be right. 

Root said England tried everything to keep the urn, but ultimately fell to their inevitable fate

England captain Joe Root insisted the team were not outplayed – but that is not true

England can't keep arriving at a gunfight with air rifles

This was a complete Australian victory – better batsmen, better bowlers, more professionally focused, sharper in the field – but it shouldn’t have been this easy. The difference was firepower: 135kmh versus 145kmh, slow bowling versus proper spinning. 

England cannot continue arriving at a gunfight with an air rifle and expecting a different outcome and the ECB cannot continue to be complacent about heavy defeats. England went through a period of wearing whitewash tours in Australia but, back then, they were facing the best Test cricketers on the planet. The current Australian team could not make that claim, or anything like it, right now. 

They have the world’ s best batsman in Steve Smith, some good quicks, a fine spinner in Nathan Lyon and plenty of Aussie ticker, but England had good reason to think, man for man, they could be competitive. The margins of victory tell the tale: 10 wickets, 120 runs, an innings and 41 runs. That, in any language, is blown away. And if it keeps happening there will come a time when interest is lost; when we revert to the darkest days for the game in England. When nobody really cared, because it seemed England didn’t either.

Australia have the best batsman in Steve Smith, but England should compete man for man

Australia have the best batsman in Steve Smith, but England should compete man for man

How can England lose eight Tests straight in Australia, and the ECB have no battle plan? Asked how England might start producing quicker bowlers, suited to the baked conditions of Australian wickets, coach Trevor Bayliss replied he hadn’t really thought about it. Why? Surely, there should have been alarm bells by now, an internal memo, a committee somewhere whose job it is to ensure England arrive in Australia next time with a feasible strategy. 

Can they get the counties to buy in, to recreate more Australian conditions, even artificially, to get more young players out in the world, in conditions that are currently alien?

‘We’ve got to get better, whether it is with the bat or the ball in foreign conditions,’ said Bayliss. ‘Away from home where it doesn’t suit us, that’s where we’ve got to improve. I might encourage Cricket Australia to let some of our boys come out here and play – although they won’t let them play Shield cricket, that’s for sure. 

‘The most difficult thing is the conditions don’t suit. The wickets are not as responsive as they are out here. There are some good young fast bowlers in England, but how do we encourage them to keep bowling fast and get better without the wickets being conducive to fast bowling? I’m not really sure. Do they play too much? Can we keep them fresher? These are all questions we’ve got to ask. Can wickets be produced that are a little harder or do we keep going down the road of playing in conditions that suit what we do? 

‘Young players do come out here, Lions tours come out here and we’ve got to do more of that in countries that we don’t do as well in. But I’m not exactly sure, really, all this is off the top of my head. Look, the extra pace helps but you’ve also got to be skilful with it, put the ball in the right areas and get the ball to move. Australia have certainly done that as well. But if the wickets are responsive to fast bowling, it gives encouragement to run in and bowl fast – if it doesn’t, it’s the opposite, and that’s discouraging.’

Trevor Bayliss insisted England must get better away from home and deal with conditions

Trevor Bayliss insisted England must get better away from home and deal with conditions

Yet it is also easy to make the task seem impossible. Fast bowlers from Steve Finn to Simon Hughes have been offering their perspective in recent weeks and all conclude that they would have loved to bowl fast but were advised to slow down, to achieve greater accuracy and movement in English conditions. And without doubt that is part of the problem. Conservative counties, conservative wickets, conservative fast-medium bowling that plays the percentages.

Equally, however, fast bowling hurts. It takes a drastic toll on the body as all of Australia’s quicks have discovered. Each one has suffered through injury, Pat Cummins especially. Each one has gone through extremes of recovery to be fit for this series. Easier to slow down, not to bang it in, settle for the quieter life. 

Certainly, if the ECB is happy to let English bowling drift this way – and heaven help them when James Anderson retires because the greatest swing bowler of this or any generation is not simply replaced, either – then where is the incentive? If the ECB is not already targeting young players who could specifically be of use on an Ashes tour, plotting their path, overseeing their development, then where is the motivation to accept the physical burden that goes with bowling fast?

Pace bowling takes its toll, but Pat Cummins reaped the rewards after recovering from injury

Pace bowling takes its toll, but Pat Cummins reaped the rewards after recovering from injury

‘Here in Australia, pace makes a difference on the flatter tracks where there isn’t much sideways movement,’ said captain Smith. ‘That extra air speed is always going to be big and we’ve worked really hard to ensure we had these three quicks on the park. A couple of them skipped the one-day series in India because we knew what was coming up, we were preparing for this series and we wanted those three to do what they’ve done. 

‘The force that goes through their bodies, bowling at 145 plus, it takes it out of you. I have such respect for the work they do off the park, the fitness, the weights, the rehab to get themselves right and bowl at that pace consistently in Test cricket. It’s a tremendous effort.’

Indeed it is. And England’s bowlers tried very hard, too. As Root explained: ‘We’ve tried absolutely everything, every plan – different fields, bowling straight, hanging them out wide, a bit of bumper warfare. We couldn’t get the ball to move laterally. We certainly haven’t been able to get the ball to move as much as we liked.’ 

Yet that’s how it is in Australia. England won here in 2010-11 against ordinary hosts, but that tour is very much the outlier, the exception. The rest have been largely interchangeable, the same huge margins of defeat, the same humiliations, the same dismal conclusion in a chamber of breeze blocks in Perth. England, next time, have stark choices: go fast, or go home. And the planning should start now.