With hindsight, it should have been inevitable.
Of course pantomime villain Steve Smith would come to Edgbaston with a point to prove on his return after scandal. Banned for a year from all forms of cricket after overseeing ball tampering in a 2018 tour of South Africa, Smith has made 85 runs in the World Cup Semi-Final against England, and now 144 and 142 during his two first Ashes innings.
Smith is a useful example of exactly how quickly cricket – and high-level team sport in general – can unexpectedly make heroes and zeroes of anyone at any given time. At that infamous press conference back in March last year, Smith said through tears, “I hope in time I can earn back respect and forgiveness”.
Shane Warne and Nasser Hussain, speaking after the Test, both called for Smith to be forgiven. Among Australian fans, he likely already is. On these shores, that forgiveness may be harder to earn – compounded by his insistence on hitting England’s lacklustre bowling almost uniformly for the boundary. Just ask the Edgbaston crowd, who welcomed Smith to the pitch with a hearty chorus of boos (only to be silenced not too long after).
If Smith set out to rehabilitate his image though, he went about it in the very best way. In just days, news coverage has gone from repeating tearful shots of that infamous press conference to clips of a triumphant Smith celebrating his second century of the Test.
Sport is fickle, and cricket especially so. This is a game where even the very ground can turn on you mid-match. It is all too easy to forget the sins – and the glories – of the past. That’s true for Smith, but the mirror image is true for several of England’s roster – just without the game-breaking scandal.
Look at Moeen Ali. Over the last twelve months, he has taken more wickets than any other Test bowler. Yet his body language was the best indicator of his – and England’s – fall from form. Head down, shoulders slumped, while bowling and batting with a general lack of conviction.
In total, Moeen took just three wickets, and made four runs, surviving 28 balls on day five when England needed to survive the day.
It is maybe more fitting to talk about zeroes, rather than heroes, among the England squad. Jason Roy, for example, who inexplicably decided to attack the ball on Day 5, rather than defend until lunch, getting bowled in emphatic fashion. You could fit a bus through the gap he left between bat and pad.
This slide is especially striking because this is largely the same group of players who won the World Cup just a month earlier. Roy was first in the World Cup batting order. Alongside him were returning faces Stokes, Woakes, Root, Bairstow and Buttler.
Yes, it’s absolutely true to point out the difference between the World Cup’s limited overs format and the Ashes Test format. Roy, for example, is usually less exposed when going for the boundary in limited overs. But they should be able to play the occasion. Day five was a case of stalwart defence and batting until the close. Neither came to pass.
Perhaps, with England fans being among the world’s most abused and cynical when it comes to national sport, we should have expected this Test defeat when England only just scraped through to victory against Ireland. That was a wake-up call, certainly, and neatly illustrated the extent to which England did not have a divine right to win matches simply because of World Cup heroism – glorious though that win was.
And while it’s true that this World Cup is a new, unprecedented addition to the trophy cabinet, there’s something about the Ashes that makes it personal.
It’s also that personal nature which seems to create this crucible for heroism – and for celebrity.
The arrival of the Ashes always inspires reminiscing to glories past. That’s no different this summer. Sky Sports are trumpeting their new documentary that precisely no-one asked for, Kevin Pietersen: Story of a Genius. It’s true that there is something alluring about that famous noughties crop – and it’s clear to all why Freddie Flintoff is now a natural fit among the showmanship of Top Gear.
But what it shows us is how we seem to miss the mercurial, the frustrating, the divisive. And maybe what it really reveals is that we’re used to having them in our own ranks.
We’re uncomfortable to see Smith assume this role as love-to-hate maverick. Uncomfortable too that he’s performing at such a Test-defining level. England now have much to contemplate ahead of the Second Test after such an unconvincing defeat. They haven’t lost the Ashes at home since 2001.
Is it possible to take some small comfort from the fact that England lost the First Test during the famous Ashes victory of 2005?
Onto Lord’s. Time for heroes.