England were not supposed to lose the Ashes, Australia were meant to slip deeper into the quagmire. Why, before the series started only Michael Clarke, Ryan Harris and maybe, Brad Haddin from amongst the Aussies would have hoped to make an England team. But it is amazing how sport can waylay you, pick out a latent deficiency and expose that cruelly for the world to see. Teams often talk about momentum, truly among the more abused of sporting clichés, but a little jolt can produce just that. One man, only one, provided that for Australia and it is fair to say that they fed off Mitchell Johnson’s aggression. But we run a little ahead of the story.
Before the Ashes began, England had the best opening batsman in the world, one of the best the game has seen at number four, an Ashes hero three months earlier at number five, a solid number three, one of the two best new ball bowlers in the world, the best spinner and a feisty fast bowler who the world loved to hate but who made things happen. When you have Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Bell, Anderson, Swann and Broad you jolly well start favourites.
By contrast Australia had a very dodgy top three, nobody really worrisome at five and six, a keeper making a comeback at 36, a tearaway fast bowler who could bowl from first slip to short fine leg, a promising but under-performing spinner and a lot of very very good young fast bowlers, all of whom were visiting the surgeon more often than the coach. You couldn’t win a series with Clarke and Harris could you?
So what happened?
Quite apart from the pace of Mitchell Johnson, and pace can test the resolve of the very best, England had a few key players who were just starting to look down at their career rather than up at it. We wouldn’t have known that before because it is the hardest thing in the world to pinpoint. We could have conjectured, discussed gently in a forum that would never become public but no one could stick their head out and say that Trott, Prior, Anderson and Swann would see their fine careers just tip over. Yes, we could say that finger spinners haven’t done well in Australia, that Swann didn’t have a great series last time, that when the ball doesn’t swing Anderson isn’t the player he