For the third time in four Tests, Australia has wasted a strong chance at victory. The likes of Chris Rogers and Ryan Harris have been let down.
When a disciplined team effort from Australia’s bowling attack choked England out for 238 early on Day 2, the opportunity was right there to take a commanding position in the match.
By the same time the next day it had been surrendered. Despite an impressive debut century for Rogers and a fluent 68 from Shane Watson, the collective failure of their colleagues mustered a lead of just 32.
Today, Ian Bell did as Ian Bell does, and batted the match away from his opponents. Australians lamented that the last-day rain at Old Trafford cost them victory; more likely it just cost Bell a streak of five hundreds in five Ashes Tests.
All this came down to Australia’s failure to support their two highest scorers. Rogers and Watson aside, only Ryan Harris even got out of the teens. The rest of the top four made nine runs between them, the rest of the top seven made 39.
Probability dictates that almost every innings will contain some batting failures. As a batsman, you are always more likely to score low than high. Even Bradman only reached a century one time out of three.
With every ball a chance to get you out, the probability of avoiding that dismissal diminishes with the length of the innings.
This is something sides factor in to their performances. Someone will do well, a couple will fail, and it’s up to the rest to decide whether the team as a whole does one or the other.
Most good totals are built around one principal score. It’s unusual for an innings to feature multiple hundreds. But the high scorers need support. Even modest innings of 20 or 30 can be used to build important partnerships of 50 or 60.
Where there are a couple of decent performances but the rest do very little, you end up with mediocrity. Two exciting scores and a string of ducks is no more use than every batsman limply scoring 20.
But the way this Test has gone follows a distinct pattern from Australia this series. Too often, one or two batsmen have provided scores while the rest have taken leave of absence.
In the second innings at Lord’s, Michael Clarke and Usman Khawaja battled along to half centuries under a lot of pressure. Their five top order colleagues contributed 35.
First up at Trent Bridge, while Ashton Agar got the limelight, Steve Smith and Phil Hughes did plenty to rescue Australia, scoring 53 and 81*. The rest of the top seven scored 30.
And in the run chase that same match, after Watson and Rogers started well with 46 and 52, the next four batsmen managed 54, leaving it to Brad Haddin to chase a miracle with 71*.
The first innings at Old Trafford only proved the rule.
Clarke’s 187 was a special effort, but Australia’s 527 wasn’t built on that alone. Clarke was supported by Smith, Rogers, Haddin and Mitchell Starc, who contributed 89, 84, 65* and 66* respectively.
Not so amazingly, when that support is present, a good individual score can provide the basis for a massive team innings.
Rogers, on the other hand, has been sadly let down, his fighting century now looking unlikely to lead to a win.
The bowlers have been let down too. Ryan Harris has bashed his brittle body through three Tests and bowling some deliveries that made us flinch from the boundary line.
As I wrote on Twitter during play, “Harris is all heart. If you said ‘Mate, I really need you to eat a fridge,’ there would be one less Kelvinator in the world.”
Peter Siddle has a similar mentality and has bowled some outstanding spells this summer, while Nathan Lyon got into his groove for the first time in England’s first innings here.
Jackson Bird has provided tidy support, while Watson has survived a heavier workload than I can remember at any time in his career, as well as apparently becoming the stingiest bowler in the world.
Those players desperately need a lift from the batting. But in this match, with England 200 in front and Australia’s form this series, it’s hard to see a fourth-innings chase going well.
Not that I want to slip into the same old sportswriter clichés about players lacking drive or hunger or desire or heart or any of the other meaningless abstract scapegoats so arbitrarily thrown about.
Australia’s batting is simply fragile – the ability is there to do well on occasion, but it is in no way reliable.
England’s, it must be said, has not looked much better. Bell has scored three hundreds in four matches to date, and without his constant rescue jobs from three wickets down, England would be the ones with a series deficit.
The main difference is, Bell has been able to find that little bit of extra support – some unspectacular scores from unspectacular teammates who’ve helped him build partnerships and take the team on.
Until Australia can mirror that approach, more chances to dominate Test matches are likely to be surrendered.