Broadly speaking, sporting attainment is framed by three factors: talent, application and luck. These three factors form the three legs of an imaginary stool; unsettle or remove one of the legs, and then whoever is perched on that stool becomes unsteady at best - and at worst, collapses.
At no point during this Ashes series have England managed to get all three of those factors working for them consistently.
The talent is clearly there in this squad; the old hands in the side have proven time and again over the course of many years that they are quality players, while the newer faces - such as Joe Root and Ben Stokes - have shown enough to suggest that they will enjoy long Test careers.
England have shown in flashes why they were hot favourites for the Ashes: Stuart Broad’s five-wicket haul at The Gabba and Stokes’s maiden Test 100 in Perth and six-wicket haul on day one at the SCG are demonstrations that they have the talent to match and beat this Australian team.
Consistency has been the problem – and for 'consistency', you can read 'application', the second leg of the stool. But that lack of application isn't necessarily a question of capriciousness, impatience or poor preparation - all of which charges have been levelled at the tourists.
Instead, it seems to Cow that we're looking at the question of each player's mindset, something which has direct correlation with their ability to apply their talent. For whatever reason, over the course of the last month or so England – usually so mentally strong – have become progressively more fragile.
Alastair Cook and Ian Bell have been out playing shots they'd have never dreamt of attempting during the summer, and Kevin Pietersen has consistently been unable to turn the tables on the bowlers for any appreciable length of time. Michael Carberry, usually a fluent run-maker, has become increasingly hesitant as the series has progressed to the point where in his brief first innings in Sydney he was prodding uncertainly at the ball like a young boy who has happened across a corpse in a pile of leaves.
The exuberance of youth has seen the fearless Stokes excel, but he is the exception rather than the rule. HE has looked every inch the classic 'young man in a hurry', with a point to prove... and unlike most of his team-mates, the whole series clearly seems fresh and exciting to him.
By contrast, most of his team-mates looked knackered by the second morning in Brisbane, and have been dragging their heels from match to match ever since - a situation not helped by the fact that all five Tests have been crammed into well under two months.
There are other factors too. A more explosive Australian lower order has seen them take control of the series as they have massively out-scored their English equivalents – as Jonathan Agnew points out:
Stats-wise, Aus have been 141/5 in every match. Last 5 wkts add 214
— Jonathan Agnew (@Aggerscricket) January 3, 2014
But apart from all that, there's the third leg of the stool: luck.
There's no point denying it: the fickle finger of fate has played a major part in England's terrible series - just as it did in their Ashes triumph in the summer.
England have won the toss just once this whole series, and that was in the fifth and final Test - and the importance of winning the toss when playing on a non-neutral ground cannot be overstated.
To put that into context, Australia lost the toss three times in England this summer - and each time, lost the match.
Furthermore, it's become increasingly difficult to win Test matches away from home: on the morning of the fifth Test, the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out the extraordinary fact that just two of the 41 Test matches played at non-neutral grounds in 2013 were won by the visitors.
And both of those victories were against Zimbabwe.
When you take all this into consideration, it starts to look as if England haven't done too badly to get into the ascendancy once or twice – even if it's been dismaying to watch them fail to convert match-winning positions into victories.
And Australia have not been as superior as the potential whitewash suggests, just as Australia were incredibly hard done-by with the 3-0 Ashes scoreline this summer (when the first two Tests could easily have gone the other way, and only the Mancunian rain prevented Australian victory at Old Trafford).
But the cold fact remains: the pattern of English failure to put a foot on their opponents' throats at the key moment looks like it'll be repeated in Sydney as Australia converted 97-5 into 326.
Having got the luck with the toss, England failed to capitalise - as has been the story of the tour.
This is where England’s decision making must be questioned. Could the series have been turned with more aggressive field positioning? More dynamic bowling changes? A few gutsier team selections before the series was already out of reach?
Michael Clarke's excellent captaincy and the Cricket Australia selectors have kept the hosts one step ahead on all three scores during this Ashes - and the decision to cram the entire five-match series into a madcap six weeks has helped them keep their momentum from match to match.
For England, things will get better - they can only get better. But Cow doesn't hold out much hope for their chances of balancing long enough on their two-legged stool to get away from Sydney with a relieving win.
- Sports & Recreation