Riding for a Fall

In cricket, as in life, times change. Teams, empires, rise and fall.

In early February 2009, England were bowled out for 51 by the West Indies at Sabina Park, Jamaica, to lose by an innings and 23 runs.

I wrote about it here.

Strauss was new as captain, Flower as coach. It was a time of flux and unease. Despite evisceration in Australia in 2006-7, the 2005 Ashes triumph was still relatively fresh in the memory. England followers had received a taste of the promised land, quickly followed by a dose of hard reality.

Then came retrenchment, rebuilding, discovery, hope and triumph.

For a time in 2011, it was possible to believe that here was a team for the ages. As an apogee, 7th January 2011, at the Sydney Cricket Ground, has it. A cathedral of Antipodean cricket is packed to the rafters with singing English fans and fellow travellers as Australia, a weak shadow of the team which had bestrode and defined an era, slides to their third innings defeat in four matches. Later in the year, India are humiliated at home.

There is a sense, though it is illusory and in some quarters self-congratulatory, that cricket has come home. England, for so long whipping boys, are now on top of the world. They have batsmen who can accumulate as few in the modern world can - Cook, Trott - they have technicians of style and brilliance - Bell - and they have an artist of unadulterated and unconventional genius in Kevin Pietersen. They also have a wicket-keeper batsman who can bend any attack in the world to his will, skilled, aggressive, penetrative seamers and an exceptional spinner. They have all bases covered. This is a team which can lose a Test match in the arid heart of India and come back to win the series. This is a team which can win an Ashes series 3-0 when playing far from its best. There is a feeling among some that this is a team that can do anything.

They are manifestly wrong. That way hubris lies.

On the eve of their next Test series, the airwaves in Britain are full of former players predicting an easy series victory for England. Despite the persuasive evidence of the danger he poses (his potent bowling in the one-day international series in England just two months ago has been instantly forgotten), fans who should know better (and now they do, boy they really do) are dismissing Mitchell Johnson as though he, a man with more than 200 Test wickets, cannot bowl. The team's support staff are issuing prescriptive and precious demands about how and when their players should be fed. In some senses this is a cricket culture, if not a team, that is riding for a fall.

On the first day in Brisbane it carries on. Michael Clarke, unquestionably a great batsman, pops one to short leg off Broad and people are questioning his future. It is implied that Broad can get him out as and when he wishes. Two days later, the same people are uncomfortably aware that he cannot.

Late on the game's third day, Jonathan Trott, for so long a byword for imperturbability and remorseless consistency, plays a short innings of such panicky impermanence that his dismissal to a truly dreadful stroke comes as an inevitable but merciful release.

At the same time, both on the pitch and in the Gabba's stands, there is ample evidence of Australia's renewed aggression and self-belief. They have taken it from England for too long and now it is payback time. This is a cricket country to its soul.

For Flower's England, painfully reacquainted with the feeling that accompanies crushing defeat, the next few weeks will be the hardest many of their players have ever had to face.


Graeme said...

just interested in asking whether this was the first time you realised that this English team was fragile?

Brian Carpenter said...

Certainly not. As mentioned in the post I wrote yesterday, things have been slipping for nearly two years, and the batting's been going downhill for almost a year. It's almost that long since they scored 400 now.

2010-11 was this team's time. Now it's Australia's.

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