THERE was just a glimmer of hope that England could yet salvage something from their Ashes humbling.
The urn had gone as they had been bullied to a 3-0 series defeat after the first three Tests but two matches remained in which the group could start to rebuild, both mentally and strategically.
The players were rested and refreshed after a few days off and with Graeme Swann’s retirement a line had been drawn under the old England side, the one that had been passed on from Andrew Strauss to Alastair Cook. A new one could start to emerge in its place.
The first innings in Melbourne was disappointing and served only as a reminder that the England batting had been frail for some months. On decent pitches the side had failed to post a score in excess of 400 since last winter’s trip to New Zealand. That sort of run is what the cricket world expects from Zimbabwe or Bangladesh, not a side which, two years ago, was the highest ranked in the world.
And as had been the case for much of the past year, the bowlers were able to recover the situation. James Anderson was more energetic, bowled about five miles per hour swifter and enjoyed the fact that, with Ben Stokes playing, there were four seamers to share the workload. If a side has five bowlers, then one must be a genuine all-rounder. Stokes proved he is one with a brilliant century in the third Test in Perth but it shows how much this England team is now in flux that a young man playing in only his own third Test has already become a crucial component.
The other front-line seamer, Stuart Broad, was regularly above the 90mph mark, which meant he was hostile once more, and Tim Bresnan had benefited from the match at Perth and recovered some match fitness. He was disciplined and delivered a “heavy” ball.
The game was set up. Despite a score of only 255, England enjoyed a first innings lead of 51 and the bowling unit was starting to look formidable again. What was needed was for the batsmen to bat for at least a day and build a substantial lead. They failed, abjectly.
It began well with captain Cook batting more fluently than he has all winter and, along with Michael Carberry, posting a half-century opening stand. In such barren times that was something of a success. With a lead in excess of 100 and all wickets remaining England should have ground Australia down.
Cook reached a half-century, his third of the series, and was immediately out lbw to Mitchell Johnson. Carberry went the same way to Peter Siddle coming around the wicket and England’s good start was in danger of being squandered.
What was needed was calm, authoritative batting. Instead, two separate collapses gifted the game back to Australia.
Joe Root, possibly mindful that in the previous matches he has been too becalmed and failed to rotate the strike, struck a pleasing off-drive and set off for a swift single. He was a tad unfortunate that the ball bounced nicely up for Johnson, fielding at mid-off, as he moved to his left, his throwing side and, in one motion, he delivered a direct hit. It was excellent fielding and deserved a run-out but Root should not be pilloried for trying to inject some tempo into both his and the team’s innings.
However, next ball Ian Bell chipped a simple catch to Johnson. It was a bizarre shot, neither a block nor a drive and a very tame dismissal. For months, Bell had been the stalwart batsman as chaos broke out around him and such efforts take their toll. He is starting to look jaded from the constant battle and a break from the game is probably needed.
That was the first collapse – Carberry, Root and Bell – and it left the match in the balance.
Kevin Pietersen was secure, batting with real discipline, but the stuttering middle and lower order needed to ensure a decent lead.
Stokes reached 19, Jonny Bairstow 21 but the rest were a procession back to the pavilion. Pietersen must have wondered what was going on. He was resolute and defiant and just needed someone at the other end to support him.
Instead Nathan Lyon ripped through them with a beguiling mix of gentle off-spin. He achieved neither prodigious turn nor devilish dip but rather delivered standard fare which earned him five wickets. He walked off high-fiving his team-mates but in a rather self-aware manner, as if even he could not believe how easy it had been.
There was the spectre of Johnson bowling at the other end but the batting was awful.
To lose five wickets for six runs to complete the inning was shambolic.
That should end up costing England the match and, even if it does not, it will be solely down to the bowlers – again.
England need to find some batsmen – and quickly – or a further slide down the rankings is inevitable.