It is a truth universally acknowledged that when England win a Test match against opposition against whom they are “meant” to have lost, there will be much talk of “new beginnings” and “resurgence.” What is less universally acknowledged is that, a few days later, England will invariably show up to the next Test match against the same opposition and lose spectacularly. At that point, there will be much talk of “same old, same old” and “crisis.” England won in Cardiff and lost spectacularly at Lord’s. The did the same against the New Zealanders earlier this season; against the West Indies over the winter; against the Australians in England in 2009 . . . and so on, and so on.
Winning in sport is more than just about beating the other team; it’s about believing that you will beat the other team. Too often, against Australia especially, England seems to think themselves lucky rather than better, and the victory a deeply satisfying fluke rather than the natural order of things. The Australians, on the other hand, expect to win every game. When they lose it’s a disaster because the natural order of things has been inverted. The result is a redoubled effort the next time to ensure that normal programming is resumed as quickly as possible.
The question that now faces England as they prepare for the third Test match at Edgbaston is whether they actually believe they can beat the Australians. They’ve done it before, but they have to own that victory, in the same way that they have to dismiss the recent defeat as a fact of sport and not a revelation of the relative strengths of both sides. The danger is that, so great is the defeat, the Australians have gotten into the England team’s heads. In which case, sports fans, the contest is over.