England’s Ashes challenge quickly crumbling

DECEMBER 5 — The Ashes is one of sport’s greatest contests.

The oldest cricket competition in the world, it was first held between England and Australia way back in 1882 and is now staged between those two countries roughly once every two years at alternating venues: England at home one series, then Australia the next.

Each series consists of five separate matches, which all take place over five days. With a few days break between each game, the 25 days of action end up being spread over the course of six weeks, keeping fans on tenterhooks for what feels like an eternity.

Well, that’s the idea, anyway. Unfortunately, though, there’s often a large gap in ability between the two teams, meaning that the action rarely goes down to the final test match and the outcome can often be obvious from very early on.

And that, sadly, appears to be very much the case with the current Ashes series, which started in Brisbane, Australia, on November 23 and will run until the fifth and final match in Sydney in the first week of January.

We’re currently halfway through the second match, and already the outlook is bad for England. Very bad indeed.

After winning the first match of the series by 10 wickets — meaning that none of their batsmen were dismissed in their second innings as they successfully chased down a target of 173 runs — Australia are well on top again.

In the currently ongoing second match, even if you know absolutely nothing about cricket you can understand very easily how much Australia are dominating simply by looking at the first innings scorecard, which reveals that Australia bashed 442 runs but England could only manage 227.

In any sport, if you are only mustering half the number of runs/points/goals/tries as your opponent, you are clearly being well beaten, and England’s capitulation in Adelaide has been little short of an embarrassment.

Fortunately, a cricket test match consists of two innings for each team, so England will have another chance to redeem themselves when Australia finish their second innings, which is currently stumbling badly at 53 runs for the loss of four wickets (meaning they have six still standing) after three days.

That mini-collapse has given England hope, but even if Australia lost all their remaining wickets without scoring a single run, or decided to voluntarily end their innings right now (which they can do by declaring), England would already need 269 runs to win.

That’s significantly more than they were able to score in their first attempt, and as batting is always more difficult the second time around due to the deterioration of the pitch, the current bookmakers’ odds of 11/1 for an England victory look decidedly stingy. 111/1 would probably be more accurate.

Cricket, I have always felt, is the most brutally unforgiving sport because it combines the direct personal challenge of an individual event with the wider framework of a team sport.

As a bowler, your job is to throw the ball towards the opposition batsman and attempt to get him out, either by making him miss the ball or by coaxing him to hit it straight into the air to one of your teammates.

As a batsman, conversely, the task is to score runs by hitting the ball away from the opposition fielders, and avoiding the mistakes which lead to your dismissal.

In both cases, if you get things right you can be the hero — the bowler who takes five wickets to secure victory or the batsman who scores the winning runs with a flurry of flamboyant attacking shots.

The other scenario, however, forces the unfortunate player to confront the humiliation of having your bowling smashed all over the park by a superior batsman, or losing your wicket with your very first ball with an awful play and miss.

Whatever happens, you’re out there in the middle of the action, exposed and all alone. But to make it worse, you’re also playing for a team whose success depends on yours, and this is the source of cricket’s particular brutality.

When a tennis player, for example, performs terribly and loses 6-0 6-0, it’s an embarrassment but only a personal embarrassment — they are letting nobody down but themselves.

For a cricketer, your failure is also letting down your team, whose potential thrilling victory might well be turned into a devastating defeat by your limitations.

This is true, to an extent, in every team sport, but nowhere is the personal duel so obvious and so important as it is in cricket, except perhaps rare occasions such as a penalty shoot-out in football, where one solitary player has to become the unlucky guy whose missed spot-kick causes defeat.

So far in this Ashes series, the decisive factors have been Australia captain Steve Smith living up to his reputation by scoring a match-winning 141 in the first match, while England’s best batsmen — Alastair Cook and captain Joe Root — have failed by scoring respective totals of just 46 and 75 in their three innings so far.

It’s not quite as simple as that because 19 other players are also in the action, but in cricket key players are highlighted for their successes or failures perhaps more than any other sport.

And unless something remarkable happens in the next couple of days, the Australian successes will be celebrated long and loud in Adelaide — and probably throughout Australia for the next month.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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