THE Ashes are gone. Australia have won them already. The scoreline may suggest a contest is still possible but the truth of the England players’ eyes tells everything we need to know.
They are shot away, an ageing heavyweight beaten up by a much younger, faster and fitter opponent who is dominating the ring. The guile has come from Australian coach Darren Lehmann and captain Michael Clarke, as demonstrated by canny field placings such as two short midwickets to Kevin Pietersen. The haymakers, the knockout blows, have come from pace bowler Mitchell Johnson.
He may look like an extra from a Sergio Leone spaghetti western with his droopy moustache but he is currently delivering bowling of such skill, pace and hostility that, on current form, he can be compared to those whose entire careers are the benchmark of fast bowling, the West Indians of the eighties. He has dominated this Ashes series. Dropped three years ago as his radar went off and, with it, his confidence, he has rediscovered his zest for bowling fast. His arm is higher than before, his body and feet moving much straighter down towards the target and his physique is as strong as an ox and lithe as a whippet. Johnson is in the form of his career and it is a joy to watch for everyone except the England batsmen facing him from 22 yards away. He is ruthlessly exposing the poor techniques of some of England’s top order and the fragility of the middle men.
England are yet to pass 200 in an innings this series and their middle order has been blown away in a matter of minutes. The statistics do not lie. In their last three attempts, the wickets for runs in the middle order have been 6-9, 4-9 and 4-6. That is 14 wickets for 28 runs and Johnson has orchestrated those collapses on two excellent, albeit different, surfaces.
Brisbane was a quick wicket with good bounce. It suited his bowling but was still an excellent batting wicket, and the wish must be that more around the world were prepared like this.
Adelaide has always been more sedate, a batsman’s paradise for three days until the dryness and heat started to make it break up and spin. Even though the new stadium means a drop-in pitch is needed, not a lot has changed.
Australia amassed 570 and the ball has turned. Johnson has simply adjusted his tactics accordingly by pitching the ball further up and attacking the stumps. His pace is not diminished by a slower wicket as the air is the same and those who faced the great Pakistan duo Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis will testify to the terrors of facing good quicks who pitch it up on slow pitches.
But what Johnson has done is keep the batsman on the back foot. None are taking a confident stride towards the pitch of the ball. They are rooted to the crease waiting for the short one to duck or try to fend away. Johnson did deliver those but, wisely, only to push the batsman back when he felt they were getting comfortable. It has been classic fast bowling. Push a batsman back into the crease then proffer some pitched-up teasers on off stump looking for the edge.
Matt Prior and Graeme Swann succumbed in exactly that way and the stumps of Alastair Cook, Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Monty Panesar were rattled. The hostility was there but so were intelligent tactics and, with deliveries hitting 90 miles per hour, it was a frightening combination.
The only resistance came from Michael Carberry and Ian Bell. Carberry has impressed with the bat and he deserved his first Test half century but he owed his team-mates much more after his calamitous drop of Brad Haddin on the first evening.
Bell was simply Bell. Unfussed, unfussy and elegant, he is a class player who is wasted at No.5. He has worked out his technique for facing pace, leaving extremely well outside the off stump, swaying away from short balls and upper cutting when more width is presented. His battle with Johnson was intriguing as the left armer just could not unsettle him. They sparred and jousted in a superb contest. The problem was that Bell, pictured, had no one to support him, otherwise it might have proved one of his finest centuries. He should go in at No.3 to blunt the Australian machine.
Australia are going to win the match and then exploit the extra pace and bounce of the WACA in Perth next week, a ground as daunting for opponents as Brisbane.
England have been emasculated but cricket supporters should rejoice and revel in the spectacle of a quick bowler at the peak of his form. It is the finest sight in cricket and it is happening right now. As the Aussies would say: “Mitchell Johnson, you beauty”.