Ben Pullan examines what went wrong for England during the recently concluded Ashes and looks at what options they may have to turn around their lacklustre form.
In years to come, 5 January 2014 will be viewed as one of the lowest points in England’s long association with Test Match Cricket. Fans of the game, looking back, will scarcely be able to believe that an team full of some of England’s most celebrated players ever managed to lose a series 5-0 against an Australian side whom they had beaten 3-0 only four months previously.
Indeed, after further investigation, they will probably think they are reading some sort of joke, written by an Aussie wag. They will see ridiculous margins of victory in every Test Match, and encounter seemingly stereotyped scenarios: the batsman who can’t take the pressure, has a breakdown and then runs off home; the formerly great bowler who decides he has no other option than to retire at a time when it could not be less convenient for the team; and a captain who is clueless.
On the other side of the coin, they will read about the outstanding performances of two 36-year-olds, deemed by many to be past their sell by date, achieving fairytale success; a batsman, who turned himself from being a left-hook-swinging laughing stock into a destroyer of England’s bowling; and a bowler, who came into the series as a joke, but left it as a legend.
Yes, there has been very little about this series that anyone would have expected. Though the Aussies had shown some signs of resurgence prior to the series, most expected an England win – or, if not, a closely fought series at the least. No one would have predicted what has happened here – that Australia have walked all over England in each of the five matches and have barely broken sweat.
Never has an England team ceded a series so easily; even the nadir of England cricket in recent times – the 5-0 whitewash of 2006/07 – saw England put up a fight in at least one of the Test Matches. And the worst thing about it is that in that series, the Australian side featured names such as Langer, Hayden, Ponting, Martyn, Hussey, Gilchrist, Warne, McGrath and Lee. The Australian side of 2013 / ‘14 were no such galácticos. Indeed, after being whitewashed themselves by India earlier this year, many were of the view that they were the worst Australian cricket team ever.
As for England, it’s impossible to see how any team can be beaten so categorically – by an Australian side that can hardly be described as world-beating – and not make changes. The question is how drastic these will be. In the moments after the conclusion of the Sydney Test, England team director Andy Flower conceded: “It does feel like the end of some type of era and there will be some sort of new start.” Though many feel that the best way to begin this is with Flower’s head, it is highly likely that England’s most successful coach will keep his job; so too the captain, Cook, largely due to a lack of alternatives.
This ‘new start’ for England is most likely to come into effect through a change in style, influenced by some new playing personnel, rather than through drastic changes at the top. The retirement of Graeme Swann has ensured that this process has already begun; no longer do England have a world class spinner who, even when conditions do not suit him, is able to ‘bowl dry’, holding up an end. Without this luxury, England can no longer risk going into Test Matches with only four front line bowlers; what they now need is a five-man attack à la 2005, with a genuine all-rounder to bat at number six.
Thankfully, it seems that, from the gloom of the past couple of months, one shining light has emerged – someone who could provide the key to balancing such a side. We ought to be wary of placing too great a weight of expectation on such young shoulders, but it is impossible not to be excited by the talent Ben Stokes has displayed in his brief international career.
In the entirety of Andrew Flintoff’s career, the talismanic all rounder registered only five centuries and three five wicket hauls; Stokes has achieved one of each inside only four Tests. What is more, the manner in which he has scored his runs and taken his wickets is just what England need. For too long we have been getting by with an uninspiring brand of cricket, relying on the top three to churn out centuries, a tactic effective against lesser opposition but liable to be exposed by the type of aggression displayed by Australia.
For this reason, it is also essential that England ensure that Steven Finn regains the form that has seen him take 90 wickets in only 23 Test Matches. He, like Stokes, has that element of star quality; capable of bowling at speeds of over 90mph, he would have been perfectly suited to the pitches Down Under, and must be ready to play come the first Test of the summer.
A four-pronged seam attack of Anderson, Broad, Stokes and Finn, with Onions in reserve, looks lethal on English wickets. Such a pace attack may allow England to play leg-spinner Scott Borthwick, a genuine attacking option, in Swann’s open berth. But if not, the best option for the moment may be to stick with Panesar.
Nevertheless, it is not the bowlers who are to blame for this debacle – the fault lies firmly with the batsmen. England’s problem is that players such as Cook, Trott, Pietersen and Bell are statistically some of our country’s greatest ever, with Test records that make them very hard to drop. Trott’s troubles have probably opened up space for some long term freshening-up, but on the whole, these players will remain the mainstay.
The key for England is to ensure they are all fully committed to righting the wrongs of last winter and overseeing the development of future stars such as Root and Ballance. With this healthy mix of experience and youth, England’s batting star could yet rise again, but they must be ready to face extreme pace next time they encounter it.
It may sound strange to be excited about English cricket at this lowest of moments, but with players like Stokes and Balance we are entering into a brave new world. Who knows – their drubbing may in fact allow the England cricket to, like the Phoenix, rise from the Ashes more beautiful than before.bookmark me