Have you ever been promised an amazing present for Christmas? The build to the big day is all part of the joy; telling everyone what you are getting, imagining the glorious moment when you tear off the paper to reveal your dream in all its shining glory. You wake up on Christmas morning with that sick excitement in your belly. You run downstairs and rip open your gift…only to find you’ve a Satsuma and a bag of walnuts, just like last year.
That’s how England fans feel. The build up to this Ashes series filled them with a belief that England could finally win it down under after 20 years, and, bar the first couple of days in Brisbane, that belief was compounded by England’s performance in the first two Tests.
However, like the ghost of Christmas past, the England of old were on display here in Perth. The team that blew Australia away in Adelaide were a distant memory, as were the batting performances that saw England amass 1137 runs in their previous two innings, for the loss of just six wickets. The batting from England was poor.
By the fourth morning, it was no great surprise that the final five England wickets fell in just 50 minutes. With Bell and Prior the only recognised batsmen left to play, the Australian team were so fired up by the opportunity to level the series that they made it look like childsplay.
England had bowled reasonably well, particularly in the first innings, restricting Australia to 268. Tremlett in particular was effective on the bouncy WACA wicket, but they missed the control offered by Stuart Broad, who flies home on Tuesday to begin rehab on his torn stomach muscle.
However, Finn, although taking wickets, is expensive. Swann is yet to perform to his usual high standards in this series, although this pitch offered little for a spinner.
One man made the difference between the sides in this Test match. Like the legend of Loch Ness, England had heard much of the monster that is Mitchell Johnson at his best, but, until now, they had never seen it with their own eyes. Taking confidence from his runs in the first innings, Johnson produced a match-winning spell with the ball that tore apart the England batsmen on day two. He removed four of the five top batsmen, three of them in 12 balls for just four runs.
Other players stepped up for Australia. Mike Hussey scored his 2nd century in three Test matches, and became top run scorer of the series. Harris took a Test best six wickets in the second innings, his first five-for in Test cricket. But it was the performance of Johnson, with bat and ball, that won this Test match for Australia, and it was all the more remarkable for the stark contrast to his recent shocking form.
The only dampener on this victory for Australia is the injury to captain Ricky Ponting. He fractured the little finger on his left hand attempting a catch in the slips at the end of day three. His participation in the next Test, just one week away, is unlikely to be decided until the morning of the game, but he remains positive about his chances.
“I think I have a really good chance of playing,” he said. “It’s only a small fracture. It’s a bit sore and a bit angry, but I’ll be right!”
England captain Andrew Strauss played down the severity of the loss, whilst admitting that it was the batting that let them down.
“Now is not a time to panic,” Strauss said. “Up until this game, our cricket on this tour has been very consistent. We dropped off in this game there is no doubt about it, but if we can retain those levels of consistency then we’ve got a great chance of going on and winning the series.
“As a batting line up we’d be very disappointed with our two performances. We’ve got to take that on the chin, learn the lessons and move on.
“You’ve certainly got to address the way we lost wickets in clusters,” Strauss conceded. “The issue to address is if you lose one or two wickets, to make sure that you don’t lose three, four or five in a row. The batters have got to take responsibility for that, but at the same time we’ve got to keep perspective about things.
“It would be wrong for us to just wash our hands of this game completely”, Strauss said. “But it’s all about bouncing back now. We’ve done it well in the past and we are going to have to do it well in Melbourne.”
England have plenty of food for thought over Christmas. Whilst wholesale changes are not England’s style, and not necessarily needed, there are some causes for concern.
Collingwood is the standout weakness in the batting line up, having only scored 62 runs so far in the series. He continues a poor run of form that has spanned much of England’s summer in the UK. At 34, he is the only player almost certain to not take part in the next Ashes series in 2013. But his other contributions to the team should not be underestimated. His bowling offers an alternative to the quicks, and gives them a vital rest. He took the crucial wicket of Johnson in the second innings here. And his fielding is exemplary. He is also a trusted confidant of Strauss.
Morgan would be the obvious replacement for Collingwood, but his place in the team should be considered alongside the bowling line up, which is where the other decisions will lie. Finn looked tired during long bowling spells, and proved expensive. With Shahzad and Bresnan both chomping at the bit to get an opportunity in this series, Finn may be rested for the next Test. Bresnan would add strength to the batting line up, while Shahzad, with his ability to swing and reverse swing the ball, is perhaps the bowler most likely to take the all important wicket of Hussey.
Perhaps Strauss is right to play down the significance of this loss. There are still two matches left in the series, and England need only win one more to retain the Ashes. But momentum is with Australia, and if the Wicked Mitch of the West shows up on Boxing Day, England will have to overcome the Wizard of Oz.