Monday 16 December 2019

Deja vu as outclassed England go back to the drawing board

England's Joe Root. Photo: REUTERS/David Gray
England's Joe Root. Photo: REUTERS/David Gray

Jonathan Liew

Not the whitewash, then, but simply a good old-fashioned spanking redolent of the 4-0 loss in 1958-59.

Then, as now, an Australian team written off as little better than ordinary in advance of the series was elevated to surprising heights on the back of an inspirational captain (Richie Benaud) and a battery of young, aggressive fast bowlers.

England, by contrast, fielded an unsatisfactory mix of young players still finding their way in Test cricket, established players struggling for form and a few legends of the game who were some years past their best. It is a paradigm worth bearing in mind when this series finally ends and the bloodletting and introspection truly begins in earnest.

You could, perhaps, glimpse the outline of just such a reckoning when assistant coach Paul Farbrace strode in at the close of play on day four to offer his thoughts. The sign of Farbrace being deployed for media duties rather than a player is generally the emblem of a bad day at the office. And once more, England had had a shocker.

"In many ways, the last few days have summed up our trip," Farbrace said. "It's been exceptionally tough. They've kept the pressure on us at all times. But the one thing we've talked about is making sure we keep fighting. Because sometimes, when you're out-skilled, all you can do is keep scrapping."

The choice of words there - "out-skilled" - was both telling and correct. Australia have not been better prepared or better funded than England. They have not been more fortunate with injuries. They have lost four tosses out of five. They have dropped more catches. And yet, by adapting to conditions better, identifying the key passages of play and seizing them, they w2on easily.

"A series like this does expose issues in your team," Farbrace admitted. "And we have a choice. You either churn out some positive stuff. Or we be honest and say that there are certain areas that are not good enough. Everybody needs to look very closely and ask if we have got the right people in the right places, and if we are doing the right things."

It was frank, forthright stuff, yet at least two Tests too late. As recently as the build-up to this match, England were continuing to indulge the delusion that they would have been competitive in this series had it not been for Steve Smith. As recently as Melbourne, they were telling themselves and us that the plans were right, the strategy was right, they were doing all the right things, just not for long enough.

Only now does the stark reality appear to have dawned on England: that man for man, they are simply not as good as Australia. Had they grasped that talent deficit much earlier - and to many, it was apparent as early as Adelaide - they might have tailored their tactics accordingly. They might have cultivated the plucky, backs-to-the-wall underdog mentality that could have given them a better chance.

Instead, they tried to do what very few teams have ever succeeded in doing here: bowling long and dry containing spells, ticking over with the bat, trying to grind Australia down rather than blowing them apart.

What might an alternative have looked like? Certainly shorter spells for the bowlers - a tactic used to good effect in Brisbane and then inexplicably discarded - would have helped focus minds and energy. Too often England were left with enfeebled bowlers running in on fumes with increasingly eclectic fields. The failure of Moeen Ali to maintain control was clearly a factor here.

England could have been more aggressive against Nathan Lyon - only Joe Root and Dawid Malan have really looked to throw him off his length - and more aggressive with the bat in general, an approach that might have yielded more in game-changing momentum than what it would have cost in wickets. After all, when a boxer is up against a superior opponent, they know the waiting game is futile. They have to go for the knockout.

The good thing is that these are the sorts of conversations that England finally look like they are about to have. "If England are serious about coming back here and winning in four years' time, the planning needs to start in the next couple of days," said Farbrace.

Not all of this lot will still be around in four years. James Vince may not be around in four weeks, having failed once more in exactly the same fashion.

Mark Stoneman will probably get a tour of New Zealand, but has not really looked the same batsman since his working over by Josh Hazlewood in Perth. Once those doubts begin to fester, they can often be hard to banish.

Counting in his favour is the lack of viable alternatives, the fact that Trevor Bayliss is a big fan, and the fact that very few international teams have the capacity to test his technique against the short ball as thoroughly as Australia have here.


But in many ways, quibbles over personnel are the easiest part of this exercise. It is the fundamental, structural questions that need to be addressed now.

Why is county cricket producing so few 90mph fast bowlers and match-winning spin bowlers? Why do England occasionally look like they have never seen a Kookaburra before? Why are so many of their most talented cricketers playing white-ball cricket only?

Does it matter that eight of this England side went to private school? What does it say about England's well-funded development pathway when their last three batting debutants have been 30, 28 and 29?

And why should we have any confidence at all in the decisions being made or the people making them when these are exactly the same conversations we were having four years ago, and some of them seven years before that?

England shouldn't necessarily be winning in Australia on a regular basis. Nobody is demanding that. But even in the grim 1990s, when they were up against Waughs and Warne, McGrath and Ponting, they generally managed to leave with something. Here, they are set to leave with nothing but a pervading feeling of deja-vu: the sense that history, like a bad curry, is fated to repeat itself. (© Independent News Service)

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