ASHES 2013: Demoralised England doesn’t know which way to look next

CONSIDER these consecutive balls at the WACA Ground yesterday and the way they are a microcosm of what has become of this Test match and series.

The first was from Jimmy Anderson, England’s second greatest wicket-taker, to George Bailey, Australia’s newest and least secure batsman, who blithely drove it back over Anderson’s head for the third six of an over that, in all, cost 28 runs, equal to the most in Test history and the most from a non-spinner.

It brought up hapless Anderson’s hundred.

The next was from erstwhile brittle Australian fast bowler Ryan Harris to Alastair Cook, one-time prodigy, maker of more Test centuries than any other England player, impervious and imperturbable here three years ago, and now his country’s captain.

It swung, straightened and hit that grail of all seam bowlers, the top of off stump.

The off bail jumped, as if someone had said “boo”.

The first rounded off a Munchausenian morning, fabulous to the point of mythical, in which Australia added 134 in 79 minutes, and Shane Watson rampaged from 29 overnight to a century in just 42 balls, including three straight-driven sixes in an over from off-spinner Graeme Swann, the leading wicket-taker when these teams met in England this year.

Watson’s innings was a feat of raw hitting unlikely to be repeated in any Scorchers match on this ground when the Big Bash League comes along next week or in one-day internationals later this summer.

It emboldened Michael Clarke to declare.

The second set back England’s two-day cause for surviving and arriving in Melbourne for the Boxing Day Test with a detectable pulse before it had begun.

The balance of the Test became a vigil to witness the nine remaining wickets.

If anything, the Australians have done too well — authorities will only half-thank them for deadening the summer’s biggest and most lucrative rubber.

Aficionados of Test cricket prefer it because each act has meaning beyond its fact.

What then to construe from madding Monday?

This: that Watson, when free in the mind and able to hit with impunity, is still a scintillating and devastating hitter.

Upon attaining his hundred, he stood mid-pitch, arms raised, the Colossus of Rhodes, or at least a colossus of roads.

For there was also this: that a Test cricketer rarely gets to play so free of constraints, and that those constraints, invisible and powerful, are what fascinates about Test cricket, or else they would all hit every time like Watson and Bailey yesterday, and bowl like Mitch Johnson all series, and we would all holler without differentiation and go home and soon forget.

Tests would be all Houdini without the straitjacket.

For most of Watson’s career, he seems to have been wrestling for release from a straitjacket.

His wicket, although inconsequential, was pure Watsonesque.

Upon skying Tim Bresnan, he stood and watched in self-absorption as Ian Bell dropped a sitter, whereupon Bresnan picked up the ball and ran him out.

So the enigma of Watson enlarges.

This, too: when invited by circumstances to play in one-day mode Bailey swung as lustily and effectively as Watson.

But when trying to play as a Test batsman 10 minutes earlier, he sometimes was all legs and arms, and the foreman of the jury would have shaken his head.

He personifies the certainty that as dominant as Australia has been in this series, it is not the finished article.

Watson, Johnson and Bailey all staked their claims to places in this side on exploits in one-day cricket.

Johnson exemplifies what is transportable from one-dayers to Tests, Bailey perhaps the risk of reading too much into one-day form, and Watson — of course — neither proves nor disproves any theory.

Finally, there is this: in no other game does demoralisation assume such a physical aspect.

England came into this series and game with the best of intentions, but early yesterday it had been crushed as a truckload of screenings.

Bresnan took a brilliant catch at long-off, but could not help tumble over the boundary rope.

Bell and Anderson let a catch fall between them.

Bell, upon dropping Watson, stalked away in disgust and had his back turned when Bresnan affected the run out.

Bell turned to see the batsman he had just dropped walking.

Like all of England, he could not work out what happened.

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