England aren’t so much travelling to Perth as trudging there. The forces of form, history and expectation are all weighing against them as they desperately seek answers to their constant collapses with the bat, inability to avoid controversy off the field and lack of pace with the ball. Golden opportunities have been spurned in this series already and the rest is beginning to look like a formality.
The most worrying aspect for England has been their inability, in Brisbane and Adelaide, to turn potentially match-winning situations into anything more than potential. They stood on the brink of posting a dominating first innings total in Brisbane, with Steve Smith desperately searching for a wicket and finding himself turning only to the macho bravado that the pre-series talk promised that this Australian attack is brimming with.
The short ball barrage worked: Dawid Malan fell hooking and England fell in the face of the ensuing onslaught.
Having bowled poorly for vast swathes of the first innings in Adelaide, the bowlers got England back into the second Test and the batsmen threatened something special. All talk, as it transpired. England have repeatedly thrown their bucket down the well only for it to come up dry.
Is there any reason to think that Perth, hosting the famous old Waca ground’s final Test, will be any different?
England have only won once here, in 1978, at a time when Australia’s Test team had been ravaged by defections to Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket. Australia have won 24 of 43 Tests here and will be keen to give the famous old ground a swansong befitting of its pacey, fearsome reputation.
They appear to be appropriately tooled up to do so, too. Pat Cummins has been exceptional in both Tests so far and Mitchell Starc, whilst not at his best, has found a way to take wickets. Josh Hazlewood showed glimpses of his very best form in extinguishing England’s flickering flame of hope on the fifth morning in Adelaide.
England at the Waca this century has made for lopsided viewing. The closest they have come to landing a blow on Australia here was in losing by 150 runs on their previous tour. Even during the victorious 2010/11 series, they were eviscerated in Perth.
This is a graveyard for English cricketing dreams and will likely prove to be so, one final time, here.
But… there is always a ‘but’. There is always a ray of hope, a chink of optimistic light shining through. South Africa have won on their previous two visits here and in 2008, both they and India won here. This isn’t an Australian stronghold in the same vein as Brisbane.
This England side has also shown signs in recent series of being able to bounce back from seemingly doomed positions. Against South Africa this year, they got dismantled at Trent Bridge only to swiftly reassemble themselves and take the series 3-1. In 2016, they traded blows with Pakistan, going one down, recovering to two-one up before eventually drawing the series two Tests each.
This side also has a point to prove. Okay, it has a few points to prove. Questions marks are lingering over the entire batting order, from Alastair Cook’s alarming slump to Joe Root’s inability to convert his 50s into match-winning hands.
Australia, too, are not without their frailties. Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja and Peter Handscomb haven’t impressed and the conclusion to the Adelaide Test was far more fraught than it ought to have been for the hosts. Aussie sides of old would have crushed the Poms and been on the golf course on Day 5.
For all the glimmers of hope for England, they are nothing more than desperately clutching at straws. The opportunity to retain the Ashes was squandered in the first two Tests and the only realistic hope is to avoid a whitewash.
England need the turnaround of all turnarounds to reignite this series and I just can’t envisage them doing it.
Australia will win this Test convincingly and England will be left to lick their wounds over Christmas, hope their players can avoid bizarre incidents on nights out and that there’s a bit of weather about in Melbourne.
In recent years, this has become a worryingly consistent theme in Ashes series Down Under.
By Miles Reucroft