After the hope comes the agony – and the fear of an England Ashes whitewash | Andy Bull

Croak

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Authors: Rio Sports

Bleak as life can seem when you are lying awake in the middle of the night, it is an immutable truth that everything will be better in the morning. Everything, that is, but English cricket. Hope didn’t even make it to sun-up, it slipped out the door while you were sleeping.

And all of us poor fools who set our alarms for 3.30am found all the bright optimism that got us out of bed was spluttering as soon as we had flicked the kettle on, guttering while the tea brewed, and out altogether by the bottom of the cup. The idea that England might break their own record and make 354 to win lasted just under three overs. Long enough for Josh Hazlewood to pinch a couple of wickets, and, with them, England out of their dreaming.

Following England can be a masochistic business. Why do it? Jim Laker had a good answer. It took him 11 years and 46 Tests to solve a question that has vexed critics, philosophers and American tourists for over a hundred years. “The aim of English Test cricket”, Laker wrote, “is, in fact, mainly to beat Australia.”

Half a century later, India are the best team in the world and the England and Wales Cricket Board is contorting the summer schedules to try to help the one-day side finally win the World Cup. But, in the thick of another Ashes series, it feels like there is a measure more truth in Laker’s take than some of the more discerning fans might like to let on. English cricket’s prayer is still: “Please let us beat them.”

For now it is back to living on scraps, talking up the little glimmers of good things done in this match: Jimmy Anderson’s first five-for in Australia, Craig Overton’s all-round performance on debut, those gritty little teens, 20s and 30s by Mark Stoneman and Dawid Malan. After that, on with concocting far-fetched schemes for the Waca: fanciful thoughts about whether Mark Wood, who has bowled only 14 overs in the last two months, might yet tear through Australia, whether Ben Foakes, who has never played so much as a T20 game for England, or Gary Ballance, who averages 13 in his past five Tests, could fix England’s middle-order.

Which feels like chicken feed to live on, given the larger problems. Unless they are playing under floodlights, England’s attack are outmatched in these conditions, especially so when their two senior pros, Anderson and Stuart Broad, make the mistake of bowling as short as they did in the first innings in Adelaide. On top of that, their batsmen have lost the knack of scoring centuries. In the past two years, England have made many more fifties per match than any other team in the world, but fewer hundreds per match than most of them too. The only team with a worse conversion rate in that time are Bangladesh.

The hope now is not so much they might yet win the series. Even all us early-bird followers surely are not so foolhardy to really think they can do that now. But instead, that they will hold themselves together, fight as hard for five days as they did in the first three days in Brisbane and on the fourth in Adelaide, and win a match somewhere along the way. Talking on the BBC on Monday, Matt Prior explained he did not think it much mattered whether the team were whitewashed or not. In his mind there was little difference between losing 3-2 or 5-0, since the only important point was they had lost at all. But England should beware thinking that way.

All those dashed English expectations tend to lead to severe recriminations. The last two England coaches whose teams lost a series in Australia lost their jobs too. Duncan Fletcher quit after the World Cup in the spring following his side’s whitewash. Seven years later Andy Flower went as well, after another 5-0 thrashing. Those defeats seemed to be so damaging it took months of intensive repair work for the team to recover.

In 2007 the ECB commissioned a six-man panel to conduct an investigation into what went wrong and 2013 was the start of that rolling omnishambles which saw them sack their star batsman, and hire and fire a new coach and director of cricket.

Ashes: Australia defeat England by 120 runs to take 2-0 series lead – video report

Ashes whitewashes can end careers, for captains, coaches, and players. Eight of the 20 men England picked in 2013-14 never played a Test again. “There are some capital winners out here,” sniffed Lord Harris when he toured Australia in the 19th century, “but I’m afraid I cannot apply the same adjective to them as losers.” Bad as Australia may have been then, England have been dismal at it in the last decade, in a different way. Each Ashes series defeat seems to become a kind of generational trauma that leaves the team in therapy. And even before England lost this second Test, you could feel the wellspring of angst, blame, and complaint bubbling up.

Last week it was the concerns about the team culture, whether or not it had grown too lax or the players were too fond of their booze, this week it was the worry about their lack of fast bowlers. And this last issue, you guess, could get particularly messy given the next Test is at the Waca. And if that all seems a little bleak, the sun is up now, and that scorecard isn’t looking any prettier.

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