England 4-132 needing 259 to make Australia bat again
When yet another Australian shot skated to the WACA boundary during the weekend's play, English fieldsmen responded with hearty hand-clapping. This was merely the illusion of an outbreak of sportsmanship. The Englishmen were, in the current fashion, not applauding the batsman but encouraging the bowler.
That this condolence was pouring out for Stuart Broad (112 Test matches, 393 wickets) and James Anderson (132 Test matches, 518 wickets) only compounded the insults the two great bowlers were taking from the free-wheeling Australian bats. These were not hard-striving new boys needing a pep-up. This was Anderson and Broad, Broad and Anderson. One tour too far? Images came to mind: Jeff Thomson in 1985, Mitchell Johnson in 2015, Andrew Flintoff in 2006/07. Even the best fast bowlers go on that long, long trip once too often.
At the halfway mark of this Ashes series, a notional composite selection from both teams, based on raw statistics, shows something eye-opening. In a top seven of David Warner, Mark Stoneman, Steve Smith, (arguably) Joe Root, Dawid Malan, Shaun Marsh and Jonny Bairstow, there would be four, count them, four, Englishmen. Aside from Smith, who is worth three players in one, the relative batting strengths of the two teams do not give even a hint of a whitewash, but suggest instead a close-fought series, which, more days than not, this one has been.
But look at the bottom four and there would be no swaps for Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon. Anderson did pick up some late wickets in Perth, but a couple were in the nature of those sympathy claps. He bowled one excellent spell in conducive conditions one Adelaide night, but beyond that has been more of an annoyance than a threat. No doubt: the difference between these two teams has been the four Australian bowlers. That is perhaps to state the obvious, as bowlers axiomatically win Test matches. Bowlers win Ashes series. Bowlers, in fact, win everything except man-of-the-match awards and a plurality of the rich endorsements.
What is marked is the distance England's pace attack has fallen behind their Australian counterparts. Broad has now been wicketless since day two in Adelaide. His last scalp: a throwaway Starc. Anderson's wickets in Perth flattered to deceive. Without the generosity of umpire Gaffaney and of the Australian tail, Anderson would also be having a barren time of it. Through half of Friday and all of Saturday, he was anonymous.
The imbalance is not just because Anderson and Broad have had to bowl to Smith and the in-form Marsh of the day. They have also got to bowl to the wobbly Australian top three, and to a No.5 slot that has a curse on it. England's batting order would probably also have been knocking Anderson around the place, not just pouring their drinks on his head.
Questions about conditions and the brand of the ball aside, Broad and Anderson have simply not been good enough to lead their country's attack. Four years ago, Broad was lion-hearted and Anderson indifferent, but their output was similarly lean. Four years before that, as young men, they retained the Ashes for England.
Over the course of four tours for Anderson and three for Broad, that is a lot of mileage to put into fast bowlers' legs. It will now be asked if these two titans of English cricket have had enough. Broad was not even given first use of the ball on Sunday morning. Anderson had been blaming the coaches for the lengths he - not they - bowled in Adelaide. These were the signals of bowlers on their last legs. On top of that, a minor theme, Anderson and Broad have again been worthless with the bat, as happens to most old bowlers, not just those exposed to head-high bumper assaults.
England's younger players, by contrast, have been their best. Whatever hope that remains for them in Perth rests with Malan, Bairstow and the weather, not their senior professionals.
In future, Anderson and Broad may be nursed through home series so that they can choose the time of their going. That would be as short-sighted as it was to nurse them all the way to these Ashes. As Michael Vaughan has pointed out, England need to plan beyond whatever their next series may be.
Added to Alastair Cook's sixth failure in six innings, the seal appears set on the generation of Englishmen who won three straight Ashes series from 2009 to 2013. Cook, Broad and Anderson were all there, and are the last survivors. Their legacy will stand without question.
They were here then, but they are still here now. Against a younger, more energetic opponent, they have been exposed on this tour and may be asked whether they can finish it. After which, they will be asked whether they should have started it.