Clueless, brainless, hopeless. Yes, England’s batsmen betrayed all those qualities in an innings that lasted just 27.4 overs and closed with the grand total of 67 on the board, England’s lowest since the 52 notched at the Oval in 1948. Joe Denly top scored with 12, England lowest highest score in history and neatly in line with another damning statistic, England’s 12th lowest total in 142 years.
Australia’s quicks bowled beautifully, fast and at the stumps, the kind of bowling that deserved a contest. England’s batsmen could not muster enough spunk to give them a game. Though Australia laboured on that first day their batters never once looked like they were not grinding. England rarely looked like they were applying themselves appropriately. We hesitate to say spineless, though some will think it.
Perhaps we should not be surprised. This was the third time this year they have tanked to a sub-100 total, including once to the Irish and the fourth in 17 months. What is a World Cup worth if the price is an inability to observe the fundamentals of Test cricket?
There is a lot of hand wringing about why this might be. Too much white-ball cricket, the gradual diminution of the county game, too little time spent learning the disciplines of long form batting, both technical and mental. England could not muster the necessary focus, the application that defined the work of Alastair Cook, of Michael Atherton, of Geoffrey Boycott, for example.
There are also questions about the leadership of the team. The captain is losing form as well as matches. The coach, a one-day specialist, is on his way after this series. No-one seems to know how to solve the batting frailties. The answer thus far has been the Titanic option, shuffling the order as the ship sinks.
How different it looked when the day dawned under a blue sky. England knocked six off the first over. The second ball of Josh Hazelwood’s second over flashed to the boundary, a back foot drive through the covers from Jason Roy. Three balls later he drove at a wide one and was gone, the catch taken sharply by David Warner at first slip, the first of four he would devour.
The failure of the Roy experiment is having obvious consequences for Joe Root, who lasted only two balls and notched consecutive Test ducks for the first time. Hazelwood squared him up with another telling delivery. The ball took the edge and flew to Warner, who gobbled it up high to his left.
If there were any comfort for Root, he fell to a bowler operating at a terrible peak. Aside from that one boundary from Roy, Hazelwood did not concede a run in his opening four-over spell, sent back two batsmen and had Denly thankful for a hawkeye reprieve after being given out lbw.
At the other end James Pattinson was too good for Denly, and England were three down when Rory Burns gloved an attempted hook off Pat Cummins down the leg side to give Tim Paine a simple catch.
There was never a sense that England might resist, just an aching inevitability about the collapse that would follow.
There was a moment of levity in the late afternoon when Jofra Archer raced over to a steward to take from him the inflatable watermelon he was carrying and punted it into the crowd. Less amusing from the England perspective was the sight of Archer limping off with an hour to go, ruined by the weight of his workload. Come back soon shouted the chorus on the Western Terrace. It was only cramp and he did. Next time he might not.
In his absence Ben Stokes ran in like a champion, bowling with admirable pace and hostility for 15 insane overs on the bounce. It was commendable if not enough to alter the course of history. Australia will resume on 171 for six, the lead 283, almost certainly enough to see this game done and the Ashes gone already.