Out of Control

The few unexpectedly short weeks that it has taken to decide the fate of the Ashes have begun to assume a strange, slightly otherworldly quality. In a sense they have been like a return to the time, not so very long ago, when Australian dominance over England in Test cricket was taken as the natural order of things. The echoes of 2006-7, the series by which all other English thrashings are measured, are starting to feel disconcertingly loud.

But things are different now. Prior to 2005, English cricket followers under the age of thirty barely knew what it was to beat Australia. Now they know what it is to dominate, even to humiliate them. Just a few short months ago England completed a third consecutive series win against Australia, by a margin of 3-0. For all its relative closeness and the unrepresentative nature of the ultimate scoreline, it was seen as normal, understandable and predictable for England to beat Australia. This has lent the events of recent weeks a fin de siƩcle quality, and they're no less painful for that.

Over international cricket's long history there have been few times when England have led the world. In 2011, after they had won the last Ashes series in Australia 3-1, with three victories by an innings, and beaten an insipid Indian side 4-0 at home, many people fondly believed that such a time had come to stay.

Such hopes were illusory and built on sand. England were, for a relatively short time, an efficiently run, technically excellent team, relying heavily on a range of very good, if not great - with the possible exception of Pietersen - players who were in the form of their lives, and assisted by the fact that Australia in the late Ponting era were a team in transition and turmoil, while India in England in 2011, as so many overmatched Indian teams before them, resembled fish out of water once they left the security of home behind.

With the benefit of hindsight it's clear the gradual decline which has culminated in the apocalyptic shambles of the last few weeks began in the UAE in early 2012, when England's vain pretensions to greatness were laid bare by a rootless but highly talented Pakistan side. The against-the-odds series win in India last winter covered some cracks and said more about India than it did about England, while it was clear from what happened last summer that England would need to raise their level of consistency substantially if they were to counter a Lehmann-inspired Australia benefiting from the additional advantage of playing at home.

In case anyone has forgotten - and they are excused for doing so - Mitchell Johnson didn't play in the Ashes series in England. The ODIs which followed, though, were a different story.

Jonathan Trott remembers those. In the second match at Old Trafford, with England chasing 316 to win, Johnson, after having Carberry caught at backward point by Clarke, removes Trott with a short ball of high pace and spitting, lethal venom. Trott tries his best to remove his bat from the ball's vertiginous line, but he succeeds only in edging it to Wade. It is the first ball he has received, and, before he leaves the crease he looks briefly back down the pitch and his eyes narrow with confusion and retrospective concern. He has been confronted with something he cannot control and it has defeated him. Old certainties are starting to slip away.

From that moment on it was obvious to many - just so long as Johnson maintained his form - that retaining the Ashes in Australia would be very difficult for England to do. Even without Johnson there would be the muscularly authoritative and highly skilled, Ryan Harris, the redoubtably persistent Peter Siddle and the newly-trusted Nathan Lyon. Then there would be Clarke - there is always Clarke - and there would be Warner and there would be Haddin, overshadowing Prior with gloves and bat and driving ever more nails into his once-valid claim to be the world's leading wicket-keeper/batsman. God knows, there would even be Steve Smith, still looking far from a Test number five but benefiting from the reflected glow which playing in a winning side bestows, and displaying a nice line in punchy resilience.

England knew this - or at least if they didn't they weren't paying attention properly - but they have failed to confront or challenge it. They have been outplayed and shamed by a team which, for all its resurgent virtues, is still punctuated with clear weaknesses. No definitive answers exist, but tiredness in the face of an unrelenting, sapping, devaluing schedule, and good old-fashioned poor selection have both played their part, while there is also the sense that during England's glory years (if that's what they were), more than one member of the side came to think of themselves as a little better than they were, and, as decline has set in, they have been powerless to do anything to respond to something they have been unable to control.

Control has been the byword of Flower's England, as represented by conservative fields, predictable selection, turgid over-rates and over-prescriptive catering arrangements. All this is fine, just as long as the opposition don't have the temerity to start fighting fire with fire in the sledging arena while simultaneously out-bowling, out-batting and out-fielding you. Then it can all become too much very quickly. And it has.

While the series and the Ashes are gone, it would be too convenient to pretend that the opportunities for short-term redemption at Melbourne and Sydney can be discounted. Those who have been following England since the days when this type of performance was the norm rather than the exception will recall Barbados, 1994. And the release which comes with clinching a series can do strange things to victorious teams.

But, whatever happens, the events of the past few weeks have ushered in a period of soul-searching which will cast the longest of shadows over the rest of this English winter. For the England players who have failed most strongly to live up to their reputations, and for each member of their coaching team, it is a time for unsparing self-examination. For certain players, chiefly the oldest, Swann and Pietersen, it will be harder than for most. This will also be true of Andy Flower. The suspicion is that at least one, probably Flower, will fall by the wayside.

In the short term others may go too, but the feeling persists that for the likes of Cook, Prior, Broad and possibly Anderson, while form is temporary, class is permanent. Their reputations have been damaged for good, but they, and England, with an infusion of new blood, will be back.

The illusion of world domination, though, has gone. And it will take a long time to return.


Graeme said...

I agree to a point....but there have been selection errors...who is the reserve wicket-keeper? let alone the 3 big lads.

Surely they should have known that Swann would be targeted by Warner and Watson et al....so where was the strategy, why can they not set a field? Clarke sets traps: Cook sets sweepers.

The reliance on an injured seamer getting through rehab - it reminds me horribly of 2002-3 and some earlier series.

Most of all, you can excuse England being taken by surprise by the Aussie commitment at the first test. By the time the third test has come around, you would think they might know that the Australians would come at them hard.

Jaded...naive...stupid...I am not sure which is the most appropriate epithet.

And to rub salt in the wound, Cook is reverting to his mean averge against Australia - if you exclude the 10-11 series, and Bell makes runs and looks good when they don't count. 9 runs off 60 balls in the first innings at Perth suggests that he is an idiot.

Stokes mlooked good but I am hesitant about Frank hayes syndrome.

Something has gone dreadfully wrong. Nay-sayers such as me pointed at signs in the UK Ashes series but were brushed aside. Now the house is falling down. Two points...Panesar bowled at Perth in 2006 and has gone backwards. Finn was on the 2010 tour and has gone backwards. Neither of them is in the first eleven...why not?

Brian Carpenter said...

Thanks, Graeme.

I think we agree on a lot. You'll note I refer at one point to 'good old fashioned poor selection'. I was mainly thinking of:

1. The blithe, complacent assumption that Prior would start scoring runs and continue to keep well, and so a proper reserve wasn't needed. They would never have thought that Bairstow might have to take the gloves in a Test (and they don't even like his batting much these days), but that will probably happen next week.

2. The fact that a 'like-for-like' replacement for Trott wasn't taken, when they apparently knew (or so they told us) that Trott had been struggling with his mental health for a while, and they must have known that a collapse could have happened at any time (as it did). Compton would have been the obvious one but it was never going to happen.

3. The non-selection of Onions. As George Dobell has said, some basic enquiries with those in the know about county cricket would have told them that Chris Tremlett was no longer anything like the bowler he was in 2010, and he never will be again.

However you'll have to do a bit better than calling Ian Bell an 'idiot'. he hasn't been great but it isn't true to say that he never makes runs when they count - he did so last summer and at times in 2010-11. He doesn't do so enough - or achieve enough generally - for a player of his ability, but that's a wider discussion.

You certainly weren't alone in seeing the signs of decline during the UK series - it was obvious to most that England were going to have to improve a lot to retain the Ashes and they've actually got a lot worse while Australia have improved massively. I suspect that there was complacency and hubris in the camp.

I'm not sure Monty has gone too far backwards since 2006 (stayed the same, perhaps, which is a weakness in itself), but it must be remembered that he's played very little Test cricket in the intervening years (certainly since Swann made his debut in late 2008). That could be about to change, as Swann may not have very long left.

Finn? A major stain on the record of Saker and others. He has the potential to be a world-beater but he's currently going nowhere. The next two years will be decisive for him.

Subscribe in a reader