Five-nil now has a life of its own. Whenever England come to Australia for an Ashes tour, it has become traditional to speculate about the prospect of a series whitewash. What started as a comedy routine by Glenn McGrath has become pre-series bravado from home pundits, a performative dance on the ramparts as invaders approach the keep. On most recent tours, though, it has been the visitors who end up living in a state of siege. And after Australia went 2-0 up by winning the second Test in Adelaide, that scoreline is beginning to look very plausible.
It is true that England fought hard on the fifth day and night of the match while seeking an unlikely draw, and there will be emphasis on the positives the touring squad can take from that. But the batting resistance was offered by a wicketkeeper and four bowlers, while the specialist operators above them once again combined in surrender. With the ball, meanwhile, those redoubtable bowlers were toothless against Australia when it mattered, and only found their dentures when the game was gone.
The 5-0 predictions may be tiresome, but not entirely unreasonable. Up until the turn of the century there had only been one Ashes whitewash in 130 years, and even the most powerful pessimists could hardly worry about how Jack Gregory and Ted McDonald tore through England back in 1921. Things have changed in the last 21 years of Ashes series in Australia. England won three Tests by an innings in 2010-11, but that now looks like a lonely rookery surrounded by the 5-0 before it, the 5-0 after it, and a 4-0 that would have been 5-0 if not for a Melbourne pitch where bowlers could only have made the ball talk through a ouija board.
A couple of weeks ago, the current Australians did not look like candidates to add to that list of pastings. There was a removed captain, there were question marks over four of the top seven, and the three better candidates had not played in a year. Last time they did, a fine group of bowlers was nonetheless repelled by an India and Friends touring troupe. Home advantage said Australia should win, but not by a distance.
Now distance is all there is. Take Jhye Richardson, a diminutive fast bowler with two Tests to his name and three years of shoulder rehab since playing them. Yet on the final day in Adelaide he took five for 42 to ensure a win that was less than guaranteed. He dismissed both English openers on the fourth evening with bounce that fed the catching cordon from an immaculate line. He dislodged Chris Woakes with an unplayable ball that jagged off the seam to take middle stump. His fast short balls pushed Jos Buttler back until that fateful slip into the stumps, then he finished off the final partnership with another edge.
This was in a team deprived of its two best fast bowlers in Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood and missing Cummins as captain. In a team in which Mitchell Starc was troubled by twinges in his back, Cameron Green had a problem with his side and Nathan Lyon had put in a mighty shift. Australia desperately needed Richardson to deliver – and he did.
Which means that England will face a fresh Cummins in Melbourne, with Hazlewood more likely to return in Sydney, giving a chance for Starc to rest if required. There is only one remaining question mark over a batting spot, and the others have so far found Marcus Harris easy to carry. He will still likely get the chance to join the procession on his home ground.
In contrast, the England camp have a litany of problems: a top order that is fast food, spinners they don’t trust to play, fast bowlers they don’t dare to play, a No 8 picked to bail out the batting who doesn’t take wickets, plans that outsmart their authors, rushes of panic in the field, and a captain who is trying to carry the caravan by scoring half the runs and bowling a quarter of the overs. One of his coaches may have whacked him in the groin literally, but his teammates do it metaphorically every day.
It isn’t Australian triumphalism or English despair that sees the next three Tests going one way. Outside of that lonely series win a decade ago, England’s win-loss scoreline in Australia for the last 35 years stands at 3-29, which coincidentally is often the local format of the score when they are batting. That is England’s history, but England’s present should be more than enough to worry the current team.
Whitewashes are rare because that perfect sequence is unlikely, so it is unreasonable to say it will happen. But it is no longer unreasonable to think it could. The touring supporters might have kept singing until the final ball in Adelaide, but across the home country, the drums are beating.