Battered in Brisbane, annihilated in Adelaide, finally perishing in Perth, England’s cricket team are at their lowest ebb for years. Malcolm Boughen asks why and tentatively suggests a way forward.
So the Ashes have gone. Hardly a surprise on the evidence of the last four weeks of cricket down under – but a turn around on a completely unprecedented scale in comparison to what happened just a few months ago in England. So what went wrong?
When a team under-performs so catastrophically as England have in this series, you have to start by looking at the way it’s being run – and in particular the captaincy. The series started with Australia’s captain, Michael Clarke, just one bad series away from losing his job. Even before the last two tests have been played – but with the Ashes already lost – it’s now England’s Alastair Cook who is under pressure.
To begin with, Cook’s batting seemed serenely unaffected by the pressures of captaincy. Taking over full-time after the retirement of Andrew Strauss in August 2012, Cook scored centuries in each of his first three Tests as captain – taking England to their first series victory in India since 1985.
But perhaps there were signs of things to come (in this as in so many other areas) in this summer’s Ashes series. Despite taking England to an apparently comfortable 3-0 win, Cook was never at his best at the crease – averaging under 30 and managing a top score of just 62.
This tour has turned into a nightmare – averaging only 25 and in his 100th test in Perth being bowled first ball in the second innings by Ryan Harris. He seems incapable of lifting the spirits and performance of his team… and he’s even lost the toss in every test so far. When things are going against you, that’s the way it goes.
But it’s certainly not just a question of bad luck with the toss. In each of the first three Tests, England have had the chance to bowl the Aussies out cheaply in their first innings, but failed to take it.
In Brisbane, the home side had been reduced to 132-6, but recovered to make 295. England were then skittled out for 136. At Adelaide, Australia had reached 174-4– not bad, but hardly record-breaking. They ultimately made 570, with England managing just 172. And in Perth, a score of 143-5 again gave England illusory hope. Australia finished on 385 – and England could make just 251.
Last summer’s 3-0 victory was not as convincing as the result suggested. The difference was that England managed to raise their game when it mattered. This summer, the boot has been on the other foot. In adversity, Australia have battled themselves back into the game — whereas England have simply folded.
Which brings us to…
The middle order collapse has traditionally been England’s Achilles heel. But it seemed the problem had been solved.
Between them, Cook, Joe Root, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell usually provided a solid basis on which players like Matt Prior, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann could build. But not any more.
Cook has struggled, Trott has left the scene and Pietersen contrives ever new ways of getting himself out when runs seem there for the taking. With the pressure on, the middle order has been exposed and found wanting.
Perhaps of all England’s players, the greatest concern has been over the form of its wicket-keeper. England’s player of the year in 2012-13, Prior was so highly rated coming into this series that the selectors did not even choose a second specialist wicket-keeper.
But while Australia’s Brad Haddin has led the lower order resistance, scoring a century and three half-centuries to average 65, Prior has failed four times out of six, averaging just 18. In Perth, Prior’s problems even spread to his keeping, seeing him missing stumping chances off Swann.
As much as England have failed with the bat, their performance has been just as disappointing in the field.
Again, there has been a stark contrast between the sudden return to form of Australia’s paceman, Mitchell Johnson, and the relative decline of England’s Jimmy Anderson.
But this is mainly a question of “horses for courses”. Anderson is a superb swing and seam bowler in English conditions, but on Australia’s hard bouncy pitches something else is needed. That’s why they took tall, pacy bowlers like Steven Finn, Chris Tremlett and Boyd Rankin – players who’ve been given little or no chance to show what they can do, even in Perth, where extra bounce is guaranteed.
Similarly, there’s been little to help spinner Graeme Swann. And even England’s fielding – once the pride of the team – has been below par.
So, problems in every department. But the biggest of all is that England’s spirit seems to have been crushed.
Cricket, arguably more than any other sport, is a game played largely in the mind. England have had the upper hand in recent years and, buoyed by that record during the summer, regularly managed to pull out a performance when needed. But the signs of potential fragility were there.
Under their new coach, Darren Lehmann, Australia have rediscovered that tough, win-at-all-costs approach of Aussies down the ages. And with a hostile media and revved-up crowds behind them, they’ve managed to apply psychological pressure on England from the start.
Trott forced to return home, Cook unable to build an innings, Pietersen in self-destruct mode, and Prior, Swann and Anderson blasted out of the running. England’s match-winners seem to have moved from complacency to defeatism in just a month.
So where do we go from here?
Is it time for Cook to be rested? Stuart Broad has been one of the few English players who has been able to withstand the Australian mind games. Perhaps he should take over for the last two tests.
However brilliant he may be at his best, Kevin Pietersen shows time and again that he does not have the temperament for this kind of cricket. Perhaps he should concentrate on his career in the IPL.
And surely it’s time to give some of the fringe players their chance. Young Ben Stokes showed in the second innings in Perth that he was up for the fight. Michael Carberry has done well, so now may be the time to introduce players like Yorkshire’s Gary Balance and stand-in wicketkeeper-batsman Jonny Bairstow – as well as a couple of those overlooked seamers.
After all, they can’t do any worse.