The Non-Conformist

When I hinted last week that I thought that at least one of Graeme Swann, Kevin Pietersen and Andy Flower would soon take the decision to move on from Test cricket, I wasn't expecting something to happen so soon. Indeed, I wasn't necessarily expecting Swann to be dropped for the Melbourne Test, even though it seemed like the right thing to do. With the replacement of Prior apparently inevitable, I was doubtful that the England management would want to make too many changes at once, even if their team was looking more and more like a busted flush by the day. In the event, Swann took the decision out of the hands of Flower and his cohorts, and this was far from surprising. Swann has always had a welcome tendency to say and do what he wants, rather than what's expected of him.

Beyond the more obvious things that Graeme Swann gave England in his late-flowering career - beyond his crafty, aggressive bowling, his reliable slip catching and his punchy, vivacious batting - he stood as living proof that it was possible for a contemporary player to cut through the vacuity and bullshit of the modern player-media relationship. Swann, who'd really done his time on the county circuit and consequently stood slightly apart from much of the regimented behaviour and thinking of the modern international player, tended to tell it as he saw it, which was refreshing in itself. At times, as in the past few days, it would lead to more questions than answers, but it was always good to feel that you were getting the genuine opinions of someone who came across as having a wider world-view than most of his colleagues.

In the short term, arguments will continue about whether it was right for Swann to retire in the middle of the series or not - I tend towards the latter view - but, given Swann's personality it wasn't surprising. In a similar situation, Alastair Cook or Ian Bell, conformists to the last (and none the worse as men for that) would have been in for the long haul. Swann, though, is cut from different cloth.

And England will miss him more than they know.


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.



It's too early to take any real credit - and I'm hardly the only person who's ever indicated that they thought Ben Stokes might turn out to be a handy player - but, in May 2012, after watching him make a muscular half-century at Taunton which, in an indefinable way, hinted at greater things to come, I wrote this.

And, after seeing him hit a six at Taunton last season that went as high and as far as virtually any shot I've ever seen (although the straight boundaries at Taunton are short, it would have been a big six on any ground in the world), I was even more convinced that here was one to follow.

Of course, succeeding in Test cricket takes a lot more than the hitting of big sixes, but Ben Stokes showed today that, for all the myriad uncertainties and problems which currently confront England, he is, very definitely, one for their future.


Past Tense

With the dust settling on Jonathan Trott's return home, and with the precise reasons for it still unclear, thoughts turn to what he has left behind.

If it is to be the end of his England career - and no-one yet has any firm idea about that, including, I'm sure, Trott himself - he leaves behind him a legacy of apparently emotionless intensity, of striving purposefulness and of calmness under fire which has served England well through both difficult and glorious times. With all this said, though, the feeling persists, as I touched upon back in June here, that Trott has never, will never, quite be admired in the way many of his colleagues in the current England team are, let alone the way in which many England players of the past (think Tom Graveney, to take just one example) have been truly and unconditionally loved.

The recent turn of events has shown that Trott - scowling, balding, crease-occupying, Jonathan Trott - is as vulnerable as the rest of us (and we warm to him just a little more for that), but the fact remains that for most of his four years in the England side, regardless of the runs he made, he was just a little too much of an outsider for people's comfort. His lack of visible emotion, his occasional (exaggerated by his critics) reluctance to adjust his approach to the perceived needs of the situation and the obvious otherness of his accent all contributed to this in a way that similar traits haven't for other players. Trott is no more or less South African (or English) than his erstwhile colleague Kevin Pietersen, but for all his perceived arrogance, Pietersen's relative extroversion, and the dazzlingly innovative genius of his batting, have brought him closer to the hearts of England fans than anything Jonathan Trott ever did.

This, of course, is unfair; many of the things which Jonathan Trott did for England were exceptional. Of course you had the century on debut, of course you had the doubles at Lord's and Cardiff, of course you had the runs which nailed the Australian coffin shut during England's last tour there, but most of all you had the innings during which he, in partnership with Stuart Broad, took a Test away from Pakistan on the day spot fixing came to Lord's. Regardless of where his front foot was landing, Mohammad Amir was making it talk that morning, and Trott's judgement and resolution, coupled with his finely tuned awareness of when and how to start to take the game to, and then away, from the opposition, marked him down as someone who could be a player for the ages. It may not be widely recalled as such yet (perhaps, in the future, it will), but that was a truly great innings.

As to what else Trott has left behind, he has left an England team which, for all its planning, its attention to detail and its past successes, stands close to the precipice. Established players' form continues to falter, others, perhaps, are fading in age's spotlight. Trott has no obvious replacement in the team, chiefly because, although we are told his illness is nothing new, nobody thought to bring a player who could act, without hesitation, as a direct substitute for him. This week, in Adelaide, the wheels can either be bolted firmly back on to the wagon, or. conceivably, they may start to come off.

For England the pressure this week will be as intense as the South Australian heat. For Trott, the chill greyness of a Birmingham winter will be a strange but necessary kind of release from the stresses of his former existence.

It is to be hoped that he will return to England colours in the future. In the meantime he may be missed more in his absence than he was ever valued.

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