In the 2013 Ashes in England, England won 3-0, yet competing in Australia less than 3 months later, Australia won 5-0. An 8 game turnaround in under three months. How on earth is that possible?
A lot of people may think that this is because of Australia and/or England’s home ground advantage. But that just isn’t true when you are talking about these two countries. Australia and England are ranked third and fourth in terms of the best away records compared to home records (South Africa and Pakistan are ranked 1st and 2nd). If that was the only factor then it should have gone from 3-0 to 2-0 or perhaps 2-1 or 3-1. England still should have won in Australia, given how dominant they were at home.
Indeed, England were favourites to beat Australia in Australia. For reference, the order of teams with the biggest home ground advantage is: India-West Indies-Bangladesh-Sri Lanka-New Zealand-Zimbabwe-England-Australia-Pakistan-South Africa. If this was India vs West Indies, we might expect 3-0 to turn into 5-0 the other way. But this is Australia vs England, teams who, while still having a slight home ground advantage, are really known for having fair contests, especially against each other.
So what went wrong?
Squad-wise, the major difference in the Australian squad for 2013/14 was the addition of Mitchell Johnson as the 3rd fast bowler, replacing the injured James Pattinson. Mitchell Johnson was a last-minute call-up, having been out of form from 2010-2012 inclusive. With Australia’s best bowler Pattinson out, and the selectors not trusting James Faulkner to play purely as a bowler, Johnson was given a chance.
Jackson Bird and Mitchell Starc, who both played in England, were replaced by Doug Bollinger and Nathan Coulter-Nile for the return series in Australia. In the batting front, Ed Cowan, the Phil Hughes and Usman Khawaja, who played in England, were replaced by George Bailey and Alex Doolan.
England’s squad was also quite similar. The batsmen Garry Ballance and Michael Carberry came in, replacing James Taylor. Bowlers Simon Kerrigan and Graham Onions were left out, replaced by Boyd Rankin and the all-rounder Ben Stokes, who made his test debut in Australia in that series. Other than that, the squads were pretty much the same.
The 2013/14 series was known for Mitchell Johnson’s incredible three man of the match performances in five tests, and he arguably could have won man of the match in the other two tests as well. He was especially good in Adelaide.
Steve Smith scored his first and second test centuries in the series, while Brad Haddin provided a number of rescue acts when Australia was falling behind. This was the series when Steve Smith went from fringe player to automatic pick. Even in England Steve Smith’s inclusion was controversial. After this he was never controversial again.
But while those achievements were great, they were somewhat countered by how well Ben Stokes did, and the fact that England had the services of Joe Root and the incredible Kevin Pietersen. There was also Ian Bell, who had won the man of the series award in England.
So that clearly wasn’t enough reason.
A closer analysis of the individual matches proves what the issue was.
In England, England won the toss three times, and won all three tests. The grounds were designed such that if you won the toss you batted and invariably won the test. While this is a major issue in test cricket generally, that series was more the case than usual.
Australia almost won the first test in England, but for running out of DRS reviews and Stuart Broad claiming a catch that wasn’t a catch. In fact, two out of the three losses with a bit of luck could have been Australian wins. In other words, it could have easily been a 2-1 Australian win, rather than a 0-3 Australian loss, if only for a bit of luck.
But it was actually more than that.
The two times that Australia won the toss in the England series they were winning the tests, but for rain to fall – there was no rain in the 3 tests that England won the toss. Australia would have won, without any doubt, had rain not fallen.
In other words, take out the weather and it is a 3-2 series win to England. Take out the luck and it is a 3-2 series win to Australia. If Australia had had England’s luck, it would have been a 4-1 series win to Australia.
The 2013 series in England had Australia as the better team.
England won due to winning the toss at the right time, the rain falling at the right time, and just having DRS and other pieces of luck fall their way.
Perhaps you could argue that they deserved it due to getting the luck to fall their way, but they weren’t the better side.
Now look at what happened in Australia. Australia won the toss 4 times and won all 4 tests. They also won the 5th test, the only time that they lost the toss. In the first test they lost early wickets but recovered due to Brad Haddin. While the margin was 381 runs, if you take out Haddin’s batting and Johnson’s bowling, it was pretty close. The margins were fairly big but not enormous.
If Australia had won in England 3-2, which, on balance, was a fair result, taking the luck out of it, then a 5-0 win versus a 3-2 win would be believable, considering home ground advantages.
That’s the true story that can be told from analysis. Not that Australia improved that dramatically in such a short space of time so much as Australia were actually the better side in England, just that the scorelines and the results of the series didn’t, in that case, reflect who were the better side.
This is not a complaint, of course, as it evens out. There are series where we won while being the worst side too. It’s just that, when you win in these kinds of circumstances, as England did, that’s not the time to brag, because that unreasonable bragging just made that 5-0 victory all the sweeter.
As I analysed recently, the loss of Australia’s second best batsmen pushed Australia from the third best batting team to the sixth best, while turning them from the second best test team overall to the fifth best. It’s a big difference. The second best test team would expect to be able to beat the best test team, who are also the worst away side, when they are playing away from home, but the fifth best test team would struggle.