“Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.”
Or, “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it has been said it is the quality which guarantees all others.”
England did not choose to play poorly nor did they intend to fail. So instead of poring over technical shortcomings that contributed to the crushing 251-defeat in the first Ashes Test they would do better to examine how they might become a little more Australian in the weeks ahead.
The visitors recovered from 122-8 in the first innings and 0-3, effectively, in the second to set a winning target of 398. Skill played its part but the more significant factor was a bloody refusal to accept coming second. England, it seemed, did not know how to respond on a coruscating final day.
You would not pick out Steve Smith as a batting paradigm. You might, however, examine his “attitude” and his “courage” to understand how a batsman walking straight out of purgatory after a 12-month ban for cheating might be able to play two of the great Test innings. This was a triumph of mind as well as hand-eye coordination.
Paine was inviting us to judge his team on performance and deportment. “Behaviour doesn’t lie,” he said. Some smart arse recognised the Ickeian variation from the quote attributed to Churchill, who said: “I no longer listen to what people say, I just watch what they do. Behaviour never lies.” Who’s laughing now? Not the English.
This was always going to be about application, about the dog in the fight, about the refusal to buckle, qualities exemplified by the opposition. The boundary with which Rory Burns started the final morning was agreeable but beside the point. England would not be chasing the unchaseable, they would, in theory anyway, be trying to soak up time, to wear down the day, to blunt Australian blades.
Not for long. Burns, the hero of England’s first innings, was back in the house with the score on 19, ill served on this occasion by his idiosyncratic crouch, which cramped his response to a lifting Pat Cummins delivery that had day-five pitch stamped all over it.
Jason Roy was playing a different game when he burned his wicket. His daft charge at Nathan Lyon would have cost him in the one-day setting too and forced those defending his selection to have a little word with themselves. His execution was poor but not as bad as the choice he made to dance down the track on the fifth day of a match England could not win. Aggression is fine. Rank stupidity is not.
If England were to have any chance of saving the match they would have to treat each ball on merit. Roy decided before Lyon let go that he would give it the old heave-ho. That was first and foremost a flaw in mentality. He’d lost the plot.
These are not lottery winning numbers, unless you are Australian: 11, 1, 6, 6, 4. This is the contribution of England’s vaunted middle order attempting to save the match. One by one they came and went for next to nowt, Joe Denly, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali. Only Stokes escapes censure.
While the English focus is on the failings that contributed to defeat it is only right that we recognise the qualities of the victors. Smith has been universally lauded for those twin pillars of 144 and 142. Nathan Lyon is another player the like of which England just do not have, a world class, wicket-taking spinner.
Lyon’s six-fer on the final afternoon took him past 350 Test wickets, only the fourth Australian to breach that mark after Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Dennis Lillee. Pat Cummins, the world’s highest-ranked bowler, took the remaining four wickets to bring up a century of Test scalps. Australia achieved the win with pent-up quicks Mitchel Starc and Josh Hazelwood serving the drinks and the destructive David Warner firing blanks.
Again victory resulted from a team that measures more than the sum of its parts. Through the kevlar-clad character of Smith, of Lyon, of Cummins, of Peter Siddle and James Pattinson, who had played a combined two Tests in the past three years, and of Matthew Wade, who scored his first Test century since 2013, Australia refused to yield, twice recovering from losing positions.
Sport at this level interrogates every facet of human performance. When the pressure was at its height Australia found their inner Churchill. England were simply found wanting.
That, more than personnel, is the area that must be addressed if they are to have a sniff of lifting that tiny casket of burnt bails come The Oval.