After just two matches, this winter’s Ashes is already challenging the hotly contested record for Most Uses In A Test Series Of The Phrase “It has been a chastening day for England”.
Given that over the past 100 years, a first Test defeat for England in Australia has, with one exception, always led to a second Test loss, the result in Adelaide did not trouble the sporting seismometer.
In a world of flux and uncertainty, England being 2-0 down after two Tests in Australia is one of the few beacons of reliability – it has happened seven times in the past nine tours, with an eighth narrowly avoided thanks to well-timed Brisbane rain in 1998-99, to add to similar scorelines in the home series of 1989, 1993 and 2001.
Australia, by contrast, have been two down after two in England only three times, two of which were during the reign of Queen Victoria (1886 and 1890), and the other in 2013, the final triumph of one of England’s finest Test generations.
Where exactly, then, does this winter’s cricketingly cataclysmic start rank in the anti-pantheon of Worst First Two Ashes Tests In English Cricketing History? The answer is high.
Here are four reasons why the start of this England tour challenges any that have gone before it.
1. For only the fourth time in a series in Australia, only two England players have raised their bats to acknowledge a half-century in the first two Tests combined
England have dutifully avoided adding to the workload of the honours board engravers in both Brisbane and Adelaide.
With the bat, only Root and Malan have reached 50, once each in each Test. Their two partnerships have accrued 300 of England’s 872 runs. The other 38 stands combined have averaged 15 runs per dismissal.
The previous occasions on which England had amassed as few as two half-centurions after two matches of a series in Australia were in 1876-77, in the first two Tests ever played, and in 1950-51 and 1958-59, when Australia’s batting also struggled in low-scoring matches.
To highlight the rarity of the shallowness of England’s batting this year, consider that since March 1973, England have played 147 Test series of two or more matches.
They have had at least three half-century makers in the opening two Tests in 144 of those series.
The first exception was the West Indies series of 1991, when Graham Gooch carried England’s batting in a low-scoring classic at Headingley and Robin Smith made a superb century in a rain-shortened Lord’s Test.
The second and third exceptions have been England’s previous series, against India last summer, when Jonny Bairstow’s 57 at Lord’s was the only half-century posted by anyone other than Joe Root for England, and this Ashes.
2. The last time no England bowler recorded a four-wicket haul in the first two Tests of an Ashes series was more than 100 years ago
On the bowling side, not only have England failed to record a five-wicket haul, but none of the bowlers has even taken four in an innings.
Several of England’s bowlers have applied pressure, restrained scoring and posed problems, but none has damaged Australia.
In the entire history of Ashes cricket, there have only been six previous occasions when a team has failed to register a four-for in either of the first two Tests.
In three of those (England in 1912, Australia in 1902 and 1926), rain significantly reduced bowling opportunities, leaving Australia in 1896 and 1954-55, and England in 1920-21, as the only previous non-weather-impeded Ashes teams not to take a four-wicket haul in the first two Tests of a series.
3. England are only the second team in Ashes history to fail to post either a century or a four-wicket haul in the first two Tests of a series
Hundreds and five-fors are not absolutely necessary for Test victories: 28% of post-war Test victories have not included a century, 30% have not contained a five-wicket haul, and 7% have featured neither.
Winning without a four-for is trickier (4%), and only 1.1% of victories have contained neither a century nor a four-wicket haul.
England’s performances so far in this series, therefore, have not been what the statistical doctor ordered.
This is the third away Ashes in succession in which no England batter has made a century in the first two Tests, something that had only happened twice (1950-51 and 1994-95) since the 1880s.
Australia’s batters, by familiar contrast, have made two hundreds (Head, spectacularly, and Labuschagne, with an almost eczematic scratchiness), as well as three scores in the 90s (Warner twice, and Smith), and their bowlers have accumulated four four-fors for four different players (Cummins and Lyon in Brisbane, Starc and Richardson in Adelaide).
The only other team in Ashes history with neither a century nor a four-wicket haul after two Tests was the 1902 Australians.
On the plus side for England supporters who seek encouraging precedent, that team went on to win the Ashes. On the minus side, they were not 2-0 down.
And in significant mitigation, rain had wiped out most of the first two Tests, and Australia had managed only one completed innings with both bat and ball.
In essence, therefore, England’s lack of individual success in the first two matches this winter is unprecedented in the annals of Test cricket’s oldest rivalry.
4. The last time England conceded first-innings leads of more than 200 in both of the first two Tests in Australia, post-war rationing was still in full swing
If the fact of Australian dominance has been disappointing in itself, especially after the home side’s defeat by an injury-ravaged India a year ago, the margin of Australian dominance has been brutal.
First-innings deficits of 278 and 237 make this Ashes tour the first since 1946-47 in which England have trailed by more than 200 in both the first and second Test (they also suffered this numerical ignominy at home in 2001).
Since the 1994-95 series, only nine out 37 Ashes matches in BaggyGreenland have had a first-innings margin of less than 100 runs, and 15 of 27 since 2002-03 have featured a halfway difference of more than 200 (as many 200-run first-innings gulfs as there had been in 78 matches between the two teams from 1946-47 to 1998-99).
These first-innings chasms have mostly led to resounding victories such as the ones Australia have enjoyed in the last two weeks. England’s spectacular series win in 2010-11 featured three innings victories plus a 267-run defeat in Perth.
To watch an Ashes Test in Australia in which the team chasing in the fourth innings won with more than five wickets down, you would have to set your Tardis to 1928-29, since when there have also only been five matches won by a margin of under 50 runs, the most recent of which was England’s staggering 12-run victory at the MCG in 1998-99 when the Australia had already retained the urn.