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England could have won 5-0

Was the Butterfly Effect at work?

Even if you don't follow cricket, it's hard to have missed the headlines about England's 5-0 thrashing in the Ashes at the hands of Australia.  For a team who started the series as favourites, a whitewash defeat is nothing short of humiliation. 

When humiliations like this happen there are inevitably post mortems and a quick search for scapegoats.  Was it arrogance? Lack of preparation?  Poor captaincy? Or just being out-played? All these things played a part. England's flaws were ruthlessly exposed. And the easiest thing to do in these situations is jump on the bandwagon of kicking the losers.  Call for sackings, a change of culture etc.  Well, the media and most cricket-followers are doing a good job of that, so let me be provocative and take a completely contrarian view. 

I think with exactly the same team and one tiny change of circumstances, England could have WON this series 5-0.  This is partly because this is (at least was) not a great Australian team, and their batting line-up at the start of the series was arguably much weaker than England's. You're probably familiar with chaos theory, and how a tiny change to the starting conditions can lead to a hugely different outcome.  Sometimes it's described as a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane. 

In the Ashes, the butterfly effect began with the toss of a coin in Brisbane back in November.  At the start of the first Test, England's captain called Heads and got it wrong.  Australia chose to bat.  They ended up scoring nearly 300, but only thanks to a recovery by their tailend batsmen, particularly Brad Haddin. England's batsmen were now under pressure, and after very tight Australian bowling they collapsed to score just 136 in the first innings. With a huge lead, Australia's under-pressure batsmen had the freedom to play strokes, they piled on the runs and attacked England's spinner Graeme Swann. England were set an impossible target, and were duly beaten.

But what if England had won the toss in Brisbane?  They would have batted first.  They might well have struggled against the speed of Mitchell Johnson, but without the pressure of knowing the opponents had scored 300, they could comfortably have scored 200+.  The Australian batting side is vulnerable (the top order struggled throughout the series in the first innings) so it's easy to imagine England getting a first innings lead.  And then Australia would have had to bat last on a pitch taking spin, so Graeme Swann would have been more effective, and certainly wouldn't have been slogged out of the park.  Joe Root's spin would have been a useful back-up.

With England 1-0 up, the Australian media would have turned against its own team.  Newcomer George Bailey might have been dropped.  Had England then also won the toss at Adelaide they would have batted first again. Boosted by a win,  England would have batted longer and forced Ryan Harris to bowl more overs - and history says that when he bowls lots of overs, his body breaks down.  So Harris wouldn't have lasted five Tests, he may only have lasted two.  Graeme Swann would again have exploited a last-day pitch, and 2-0 was eminently possible.  With confidence, the batsmen, especially Cook and Prior, would have found form.  Swann would certainly have played in all five Tests and been effective. And with the wheels falling off, Australia's batting vulnerability would have been exposed - there are no obvious replacement batsmen waiting in the wings.

OK, it didn't happen, and most cricket fans will regard this as far fetched - but that's viewed from where we are now, not how things were in November.  And while 5-0 defeat was horrendous, it became almost inevitable after the momentum of Australia winning the first threeTests, and in reverse, the momentum for Australian defeats could have been the same.

One last thought. While losing 5-0 has been very bad for English cricket, England losing the Ashes has certainly been a good thing for cricket.  Australian interest in cricket had been waning after losing three Ashes series in a row, and the crowds would have stayed away in droves if the pattern had continued.  Instead, Melbourne saw the highest ever attendance at a Test match in the history of the game.  Australia is back in love with cricket, and the next Ashes series, in England in 2015, will be a far more mouth-watering prospect than the one in 2013. 

And by losing the first Test, England discovered a rare and exciting new star in Ben Stokes.  All on the toss of a coin, eh?