|Posted on February 23, 2014 at 9:55 AM|
Written by Jacob Savill
Statistically, the 2013/14 Ashes tour will go down in the annals of history as England’s worst ever. It was the third Ashes whitewash in more than 130 years of illustrious Ashes history – the previous two occurring in 1926/7 and 2006/7, and extraordinarily, it was the first Ashes series in history, in which Australia managed to name an unchanged side for all 5 tests. Such has been the rapid disintegration of English cricket in the past two months that Head Coach Andy Flower, has since labelled it the ‘end of an era.’ The mood of the tour was encapsulated by the premature departure of two of England’s most senior and consistent players: the exodus of Jonathon Trott through depression, and Graeme Swann through sudden retirement, signified the dawn of a new epoch for English cricket. Throughout this wretched series, three times the margin of defeat for England was more than 200 runs, and a woeful record of 21.58 runs per wicket underlines the inherent weaknesses that were present in their floundering batting line-up.
England arrived in Australia in November on the back of a 3-0 triumph over the Aussies in the summer, and whilst on paper this 3-0 victory appeared comfortable, many of the failings displayed this winter had already began to surface, namely the growing fragility of the ageing batting line-up. Despite finishing second best, many of the plaudits were laid at the feet of the Aussies for the fight and aggression that they took to England under new coach Darren Lehmann. The resurgence of Australian cricket continued this winter, as England were categorically outclassed by Lehman’s men.
In the corresponding Ashes series in Australia three years ago, England batted Australia into oblivion - 517-1 at the Gabba, 620 in Adelaide, 513 at the MCG, 644 in Sydney. Alistair Cook averaged over 127, accumulating a record-breaking 766 runs. His tally of 122 runs in this series at an average of merely 24.40 looks woeful in comparison. But this series has seen the failure of almost every senior batsman – not just Alastair Cook. The likes of Kevin Pietersen, Jonathon Trott, Ian Bell and Joe Root didn’t produce a single century between them; with the form of Jonathon Trott in particular being a cause for concern for at least a year. His presence at number three for England had been the cornerstone of the England batting line-up during their resurgence under Andy Flower, yet this winter saw his increasingly poor form get the better of him, as it sadly drove him into depression. Joe Root’s lack of headway has also been frustrating for the selectors; his form in the summer earned him the typecast as the new Michael Vaughan, yet he failed to muster more than one half century in five Tests down under.
The contrasting form of the respective wicket-keepers was also emblematic of the wider gulf in quality between the sides. Brad Haddin, who has frequently been a thorn in England’s side in past Ashes series, once again provided headaches for the England bowling attack as he notched up nearly 500 runs batting with the lower order. On paper, Matt Prior is just as good, if not better than Haddin, a player certainly capable of bettering those statistics. In 2012, Prior was named the England Player of the Year – a notable achievement – but this winter his form has collapsed to new depths. Being dropped for the 4th test in Melbourne was long overdue, and could only have come as a welcome relief for Prior, especially having seen his poor batting form spill over into his usually consistent wicket-keeping.
As it’s very easy to talk about how poor England were, it’s important not to overlook the outstanding performances of the Australians and in particular, Mitchell Johnson; a rejuvenated Aussie bowler who ripped through the England batsmen on numerous occasions. Johnson was only initially selected for the squad because of injuries to youngsters like James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins, but Johnson’s impact has been the single biggest difference between the sides; he terrorised English batsmen by hurling down plus 90mph cherries on a regular basis, taking 37 wickets at an average of 13.97 in the process. England's two key bowlers, by contrast, have been first sterilised and then dismembered. In 2010-11, James Anderson took 24 wickets at an average of 26.04, and Graeme Swann secured 15 wickets at 39. This time round, Anderson took only 14 wickets at 43, and Swann a pitiful 7 wickets at an average of no less than 80. Both these players didn’t display anywhere near the form they have illustrated in the past few years for England, and in Swann’s case, his lack of wickets and frequent leaking of runs, pushed him into a premature retirement.
Whilst the form of individual players has been a contributing factor to the trouncing that England received this winter, the underlying factor behind their lack of success lies with the manner in which England approached the series. Whilst Andy Flower is an excellent coach, a man who earns the respect of all his players, there are suggestions that a change at the top is required; perhaps someone who is more comfortable in taking the attack to the opposition. Many times in recent years of English cricket, England have found themselves in a hole; a hole that could have been avoided. They have had chances to obliterate struggling opposition, instead opting to slowly ground them into submission. Under Flower, England have built their successes on adopting the tactic of attrition. Play hard, give nothing away, grind and grind until the opposition are dust. Whilst this method has just about worked in recent series against New Zealand and Australia, these have all been played in familiar English conditions.
Against this Australian outfit – relentlessly aggressive with both bat and ball, spiky in the field, backed by a similarly belligerent press – on these southern hemisphere pitches, (hard and bouncy) their tactics have proven one dimensional. Long gone are the days of 2005 under Fletcher, when England scored 405 runs in less than one day at Edgbaston, attaining victory by giving the Aussies no respite.
Much of the maligned criticism of the England team has been placed upon Alastair Cook’s captaincy, which I think is understandable. His captaincy lacks the instinctive touch and tactical nous which Michael Clarke possesses in abundance. Shane Warne, before the series, hit out at the England skipper’s negative approach, and was slammed by the England team for these unnecessary comments; however, all the opener has done is merely confirm the sultan of spin’s opinion - that he is in fact a formulaic captain, possessing limited charisma, and unable to change the game when needed. Granted he was let down by his blundering batsmen and the poor form of James Anderson and Graeme Swann, but his perpetual defensive field placements merely set the tone for a series in which nothing went right for the tourists. After having already squandered the urn after the first 3 tests, the last few Tests were crying out for something out of the ordinary from Cook – shock the Aussies, baffle them, just do something. Instead it was more of the same, not enough slips and too many men out sweeping on the boundary.
It is evident that if England are to once again become the best in the world, a title that now looks almost unattainable in the near future, then a serious alteration in management and style must be adopted. The coaching staff must reluctantly take a leaf out of the Australian ethos, and realize that in order to be the best, you can’t be ordinary. And ordinary is exactly what England are at the moment.