Ashes foes crash and burn

England lost to the West Indies in England, and within 24 hours Australia had succumbed to Bangladesh. The least consequence was that Australians forfeited the high moral ground before they even had fully staked it out.

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These are humbling defeats at humble hands. The West Indies and Bangladesh sit eighth and ninth on the table of Test nations, ahead only of Zimbabwe, who almost fit a long-ago Australian administrator’s prescription that they be welcomed “in a non-playing sense”. First on the order of service is to congratulate the once hapless of Bangladesh and the Windies, for broadening Test cricket’s horizon, a sorely needed development. But it all bodes ill for the Ashes, surely?

Maybe not. In the tight and contained world of Test cricket, there is much common knowledge and few variables. Ashes contests, despite the hype, tend to be played by known quantities towards easily predictable outcomes. Exceptions are few and far between.

If you start with answers, there is nowhere to go. If you start with questions, the possibilities are infinite. About both England and Australia, there are more questions than on the bona fides of the Australian Parliament.

To an extent, they are mirror images, both equally opaque. Each has a clique of veterans with formidable records, led by a young veteran who is better than them all. England has more supervets. In Australia, that might mean more ballast or more dead weight. Just now, it shapes as dead weight. On the last day at Headingley, that is how it looked.

At the other end of the scale, each has a clutch of greenhorns who have played fewer than 10 Test matches. Australia has more, which in the Ashes series might mean more vibrancy (as it did last summer) or more innocence to be destroyed. In Dhaka, they were innocents abroad, unable to finish what David Warner and Steve Smith had so brilliantly started.

It doesn’t leave many in the reliable mid-career middle bracket in either team, but it does leave plenty of room for conjecture. We cannot be certain about how good the older players are still, and the youngsters are yet.

England lie third on the table, but could slip to fourth. Australia are fourth, but will slide if they don’t at least square the Bangladesh ledger. India and South Africa are one and two. England did just beat South Africa at home, but before that were thrashed in India. Australia could not beat South Africa at home, but put up a decent fight before losing in India. Now they’ve both lost matches in Bangladesh. This is all in the past 12 months, live form if you can follow it.

Essentially, these great rivals are not great teams. But fret not. Great teams can play great series. But so can and do flawed teams. The quirk series of 2009 and 2015 are prime examples. Even the classic series in England in 2005 revolved around a fatal flaw, Australia’s unsuspected bafflement against reverse swing. England won all those series, in eccentric ways, but memorably.

Recent Ashes series in Australia have been great only for one team, generally Australia, but with England’s domination in 2010-11 as counterpoint. Home-ground advantage is the permanent handicap that has come to rule Test cricket, and will be Australia’s natural advantage this summer. If you were to make a distinction between Wednesday’s magnificent upsets, it would be that Bangladesh beat Australia at Bangladesh’s game, but the Windies beat England at England’s game.

Another is that Bangladesh had been seen as a viable threat to Australia, the Windies as a joke in England. No more.

Australia and England each have another game against their upstart conqueror before they get down to Ashes business, and suddenly, there is plenty on the line in both. That is an exciting threshold for Test cricket, and no bad thing for the Ashes either. If we cannot have the old days again, at least let’s have a bit of mystery and intrigue in the new.

Amid the exultation in Dhaka and Headingley, the moral was clear: do not (forgive me) lose hope.

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