We awakened this morning to the sound of inevitability – a three-day thrashing to complete an Ashes whitewash that was on the cards as soon as The Urn was lost pre-Christmas. The story was a familiar one this winter – an opening session-and-a-half that had the Aussie top-order all back in the hutch for less than a ton, then the turnaround that culminated on day three in an England side all-out within 35 overs to lose by almost as many runs as they totalled in the match.
Back at the end of the summer series, I commented that there wasn’t much between these sides, and certainly the three-nil home series result was flattering. It would seem that, in a very short time, the Aussie coaches used the relative adversity of that result to stoke-up the performance levels in their squad – and it worked. Harris has carried-on his good work of the summer – that opener of the second innings in Perth that got Cook was one of the best innings-first-balls I have ever seen; in fact, had I bowled one like that, I might just have announced my immediate retirement, knowing I would probably be unable to reproduce it.
At the other end, he had the perfect foil in a revitalised Mitchell Johnson, showing exactly why you shouldn’t wind-up fast bowlers when they are struggling for form – they may just recover it. I saw him bowl one maiden over in the second test that went: 93.1mph, 91.3mph, 92.6mph, 93.0mph, 91.8mph, 93.2mph. And they weren’t sprayed around either, instead causing Joe Root, who had to face all six, to hop around as if someone had turned the under pitch heating up to max.
Our main failure on the pitch was the batting. You can’t keep losing tosses down under and expect any return if you won’t dig in and bat for two days in your first innings. And I say won’t, because I didn’t see anything that said the concentration-levels were there to do so. If it was daft of the Board to accept back-to-back series, it was even dumber to expect to humiliate in one and not receive a backlash in the next. We certainly missed the stubbornness of Jonathan Trott, who has held many a perilous innings together over the last few years. If, as is suggested, the management knew he was struggling with stress, why was he even taken, especially without a like-for-like replacement in the squad? But it’s a moot point, because nobody else was firing anyway.
It may be fashionable among media pundits to point the finger at Kevin Pietersen, but he actually scored more runs than anyone else in the England squad – it was simply that his series tally was less than any of Australia’s six top-scoring batsmen, all of whom scored at least one century. England could only muster one between them, and that by an all-rounder batting at seven, our two openers amassing in total just four runs more than one of Australia’s – the much-lampooned David Warner, who actually ended as top scorer in the entire series.
Geoffrey Boycott and company, they who did most of that lampooning, are now calling for the coach’s head on the basis of performance, ignoring the main problem, which has been selection. England, quite rightly, took three 90mph-plus bowlers down there to take advantage of the hard pitches, but where have they been? OK, Broad can knock on the door of 90mph when his tail’s up, but otherwise we saw just 36 overs of Tremlett in game one, with a four-wicket return out of the seventeen taken (of which Broad got eight). That was 70% of the wickets in that humiliation to the two fastest bowlers on duty – a bit of a sign, one might think. However, we saw nothing more of the speed triplets until Rankin was thrown the poison chalice of his first cap in game five, from which he limped away after just eight overs in the first innings.
I don’t want to get on Anderson’s case, but he always struggles in Australia because he can only get something out of a Kookaburra ball for about ten overs. His figures sum it all up – fourteen wickets in the series at an average of 43.92, and from more overs than any other England bowler. Only half of those wickets were top-order batsmen – and four of those were Watson – hardly a haul worthy of a main strike bowler.
With all the rhetoric coming out of the England camp after game two, about being prepared to make tough selection calls, I really expected to see Rankin and Finn brought in to take advantage of the quickest pitch in the series to, perhaps, make a few Aussie batsmen hop around for a change. But instead it was just Bresnan for Panesar – wow, two military mediums supporting one in form and one out of form main strike bowler, plus a spinner who was going to all points of the compass, and who called it a day thereafter. Now I’m not sure if that was meant to be a Gatland-style gutsy call, but if you’re going to do it, it has to work. It didn’t, even before the only in-form strike bowler limped off to hospital.
I have an Aussie friend with whom I have chewed the cricketing cud throughout many a series. During the ‘noughties, he had been particularly critical of his team, even before the old guard faded away to reveal a fairly-ordinary bunch of successors – something he had been predicting for several years. He certainly had no time for the Mickey Arthur era, which he feels was summed-up by what is termed the ‘homework-gate’ incident in India that saw Watson and three others miss a match. He is still not overly-convinced by what they have now, but places the laurels for the turnaround firmly on Darren Lehmann’s head. Having heard Arthur, now ex-coach turned-commentator, on Channel Nine during game three, my pal observed:
“We won’t know what was said in the dressing rooms under Arthur, what the atmosphere was like. The essence of not turning in their homework was in lockstep with the all-knowing twerp I heard coming over the radio moaning about how to hold the ball, balance in the run in, hold your mouth right, put your pants on properly, blah, blah, blah. How the freaking bus found the ground without his omniscience is stunning. It struck me that England played against eleven blokes who were going to leave it all out on the field knowing they wouldn’t have to go through a group self-criticism session on return to the sheds before they could even get their protector off. They looked like a team that knew that as long as they gave it their best where it mattered, the worst they could expect was to be called a ****wit.”
What we both agree-on is that there is still little between these sides, and that the proof of either pudding will be where both squads go from here. While the likes of TMS, particularly Vaughan and Aggers, call for England to accept sackcloth (or should that be sackcoach?) the reality is that we England supporters will have to be patient with a transitional squad for a couple of years, something that is probably a little overdue but, thankfully, has been exposed at the correct time. What we don’t need, however, is a change of coach; we already have one considered among the best in the world, why should we swap him at a time like this for someone who might have attended the right school, but will probably know little of coaching at this level?
It is all very well for the BBC crew to try and build what has happened within the squad into a plot for a new episode of Miss Marple, but if something truly went wrong, then I would have expected the Sky pundits to be dropping hints. They are normally very close to the squad because, of all the media, they appear the most trusted by the players. Yet we have the Earl of Gower completely baffled by developments, Athers sounding like the outlawed son-in-law who doesn’t know what he did on Christmas Day that could possibly have caused such a silence in the wife’s family, and Sir Beefy just shrugging his shoulders in disbelief before heading for Warney’s wine cellar.
Maybe the time is ripe for change within the TMS team instead, particularly as its senior members appear more focussed on the sound of their own voices than the cricket they are paid to commentate on. The clear animosity they have stirred-up in the current England squad was not made any better by the way Swannie’s comments on his retirement were dealt with. If, as he maintains, he was having a pop at a general attitude, not any one player, is it any wonder those individuals would react negatively to the speculation by Aggers who pointed straight at coach and captain in his usual manner, Vaughan who renewed his vendetta against Stuart Broad, and Boycott who revived his personal attacks on KP – “he’s a wonderful player, I enjoy watching him, but my Grandma could have played a better shot than that.”
Maybe it is time for all three of them, and Boyc’s Grandma, to receive a bit of the treatment meted out to Piers Morgan by Brett Lee on Boxing Day – that might shut ’em up once and for all.