England left with red faces after neglecting Test cricket for years | Barney Ronay

It should come as no surprise that batsmen who have been told to whack a white ball into the stands cannot bat the day out

Well, that wasn’t supposed to happen. On a mild, sunlit Birmingham day Australia bowled straight, fielded well, swarmed around England’s batsmen and took wickets with disarming ease in front of stands filled with garrulous southern hemisphere voices.

As the final clatter began in earnest after lunch the endgame to this first Ashes Test began to feel a little giddy and light-hearted. There were ironic cheers for Moeen Ali as he successfully defended a straight ball from Nathan Lyon. England batsmen were barracked from the centre by the touring support en route to a 251-run defeat. Tim Paine’s team weren’t just in control here. They were enjoying themselves.

There is, of course, nothing to be gained from talking up your own home ground as a fortress or a cauldron. Just as in reality a group of drunken men in ostrich costumes are never likely to have any tangible bearing on the fine-point skills, the high-stress internal mechanics of Test cricket. But England will now retreat from one of their most impregnable home venues required to go against the dominant history of modern-day Ashes cricket.

In the past 50 years there have been 27 Ashes series. In this time England have only twice lost the first Test and gone on to win the series. Those two occasions were the miracle series of 1981 and the miracle series of 2005. Perhaps we’re heading for another miracle series now. Thirty years on they might still be talking about Rory’s Ashes or the Annus Mo-Rabilis. More ominous for England is the fact that in 17 of those 27 series Australia have won or drawn the first Test and gone on to take the series.

There will, of course, be hand‑wringing now, as there must be hand-wringing. But it is also hard to know what England might have done differently. In the past they have lost Ashes Test matches because the players have performed poorly or their selection has been obviously muddled. This is not really the case here.

England had one appalling stroke of bad luck, losing their best bowler in the first hour of play. But even with Jimmy Anderson in the XI some things are now clear. Australia have the best batsman in either team – and indeed the best batsman of the modern era. Australia have the best spinner. Australia have the best pace attack unless conditions even things up.

Whereas right now it is easier to pick out the areas of weakness in England’s Test team than its strengths. By the end of this match England reached a point of critical mass, with six players either injured, unproven or in the doldrums (Anderson, Jason Roy, Joe Denly, Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow and Moeen) and just five in form and unarguably in the right spot.

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England batted quite well in the first innings. Joe Root’s presence settled the top order, Stuart Broad bowled well until he was worn down. Chris Woakes was weirdly under-bowled. But that lurking brittleness was there even during those periods when they had the upper hand. Ben Stokes bowled poorly at times on the first day just when England needed to turn the screw. Moeen just needs some time to collect his game. It was at times painful to watch him here.

As for Denly, well, perhaps in nine years when he has 25 Test hundreds people will say, can you believe it, they picked him at first as a part time leg-spinner: look at him now, the 42‑year‑old new Bradman. But this will require some fast work.

Jos Buttler, England’s Test No 5, has one hundred to his name in first‑class cricket in the past five years. Here he was bowled trying to defend a ball from Pat Cummins that hit the top of off stump. Nathan Lyon bowled superbly, finding just the right line and the right pace to make the fifth‑day pitch work for him.

Otherwise there were few surprises in this performance. Members of the team who were looking short of confidence or class at this level continued to do so. And this is pretty much it for England and red‑ball cricket. The options are circumscribed.

Jofra Archer will come in, all being well. He is a hugely talented cricketer. But he will be expected to help change the trajectory of an Ashes series having not played a red‑ball game since last September. Otherwise the prominence of white‑ball cricket means there is no cab off the rank, no one in form, no one hammering on the door. The last round of County Championship matches ended on 16 July.

Plus, of course, this is a structural thing. Don’t call it a hangover. England’s losing start here is not to do with the aftershocks of the World Cup. It’s to do with the pre‑shocks, the pre-effects. For four years this team, the red ball one, has been secondary in planning and resources. Men who were being asked here to bat the day out have been encouraged to whack a white ball into the stands rather than work on gritty defence on English pitches. England’s team here is pegged around explosive white-ball talents: because these are the talents they have.

Not that anyone has anything to answer for here. It is extremely hard in any sport to be good at all the formats, all the competitions. And this was the result for England: a Test team with some loose parts that were expertly exposed here.

If there is encouragement to be taken it is that an undercooked, underdone England have four Tests to finesse the gameplan. A change of conditions at Lord’s is more likely to help them than a change of players. But they will have to work fast.


Barney Ronay at Edgbaston

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