Monday 19 March 2018

Limp England showing signs of terminal decline


Mitchell Johnson (top left) celebrates after taking the wicket of James Anderson to secure victory for Australia over England in Perth and an unassailable 3-0 lead in the Ashes series
Mitchell Johnson (top left) celebrates after taking the wicket of James Anderson to secure victory for Australia over England in Perth and an unassailable 3-0 lead in the Ashes series

Stephen Brenkley

England held the Ashes for four years and 116 days. It was their longest truly legitimate tenure for more than a half a century.

The overwhelming defeats in the first three matches of this series -- respectively by 381, 218 and 150 runs, with Australia declaring their second innings in each case -- preclude such niceties, however. The team led by Alastair Cook came on this tour as favourites after beating the same opponents 3-0 at home last summer and failed to live up to the billing in every regard.

That the margin in the third Test, which ended early on the fifth afternoon, was the slenderest of this series hardly meant the gap was being closed. In the excellently crafted century of 22-year-old Ben Stokes there should be felt genuine excitement, though. Stokes has seized a chance he was never meant to have on this tour.


But the rest was almost entirely disappointing and, although sweeping changes will not be effected and invariably never work, the suspicion of a team past its best will not be dispelled.

Cook said he wanted Andy Flower to carry on as coach but added enigmatically: "Whether he will carry on and wants to carry on you'll have to ask him."

The turnaround from winning the Ashes for the third successive time to having them brutally snatched away again took a mere 134 days. It remains more than 120 years since England won the great prize four times in a row.

Australia have played powerhouse cricket, aggressive of intent with bat, ball and mouth. Their policy, high-risk but eminently triumphant, was to leather two principal bowlers out of England's attack and to rough up several of their major batsmen, while telling them all how useless they were (expletives deleted).

In almost every case it worked. Jimmy Anderson, Graeme Swann and Matt Prior, wonderful performers for most of the last five years, are fighting for their careers. Cook, the sturdy platform on which so many large totals have been built, does not know whether he is coming or going, though mostly he has been going.

Kevin Pietersen, oblivious to most of what Australia threw at him, appears to be having an internal debate with himself about whether it is any longer worth the candle.

But the buck will stop with the captain and the coach. Cook ducked neither the responsibility nor the possibility that his head could soon be on the block, though he insisted that he and Flower could put England back on track.

"When you lose the Ashes in the way we've lost, there will always be people questioning my place," he said.

Though no one in English cricket suspected it seven weeks ago, Australia's win has exposed deep frailties. The series win at home might well have been the last hurrah of a team that has achieved a great deal.

Players will be reluctant to concede it and sometimes they are the last to recognise harsh truths. It is improbable that so many who have done so much over so many years should suddenly find poor form at the same time.

Cook had a simple, straight explanation but was reluctant to concede that the team were in terminal decline.

"The last three results suggest that," he said. "You deal in facts, and we lost three games. You only have to look at the Australian side -- there are a few guys the back end of 30 who are delivering success for Australia.

"I wouldn't necessarily say that (we are at the end), but when we needed people to be in form and play well, we haven't done that, and that's why we've lost. You have to give a lot of credit to the way Australia played. They've been very ruthless with us. When they had a sniff, they took their chance and when they had us down, they kept us there."

England detained Australia longer than expected yesterday, thanks almost solely to Stokes in his second Test. Starting the day on 71, the all-rounder was scrupulously diligent in moving to his maiden century, demonstrating that he might become the bedrock of the side in years to come.

Stokes faced 195 balls, hit 18 fours and a six, but the measured fashion in which went about his business was the most pleasing aspect of it.

He was the seventh wicket to fall in the third over after lunch on the fifth day, having lost his partner Prior to a loose shot in the morning.

The rest fell pretty quickly afterwards and it was appropriate that Mitchell Johnson, who started it all in Brisbane, should take the final wicket, Anderson caught at short leg, to ensure that the Ashes were with Australia again.

Five things England must do before Melbourne

Doing nothing is not an option

Wholesale changes never work but England pride themselves on having systems in place that are supposed to ensure smooth progress.

However, all the systems ever invented are powerless when you come up against a better team. There is obviously something amiss with a side that has lost three successive matches by huge margins. It is wrong to insist that this is the best side England can field if they keep losing.

Examine the approach to batting

The mantra when any member of England's team is interviewed is that there is a lot of talent in the squad. It is becoming harder to swallow. The signs of decline have been there since the heavy loss to Pakistan in the UAE early last year. A review of the batting order, as well as the approach, is urgently needed.

Look at the next wicketkeeper

It is wholly correct that Matt Prior has been given time to try to rediscover his form, but his poor batting form has started to affect his wicketkeeping.

Somebody else probably deserves a bash. Jonny Bairstow should be seriously considered for the fourth Test in Melbourne, but the selectors do not view him as the long-term successor.

What about the bowlers?

Jimmy Anderson and Graeme Swann have had a dreadful series. Swann, who took 26 wickets in the home Ashes in the summer, has seven in this series, while Anderson has also taken just seven. Both have looked shadows of their former selves.

Anderson is 31, Swann is 34 but this hardly makes them ancient for swing and spin bowlers. They should play the rest of this series but after that England have to start looking elsewhere.

Think about the next captain

If the future is planned it would be fascinating to know who is designated as the next captain, just in case it does not work out for Alastair Cook.

While he is entitled to one bad series, it cannot be in his or the side's best interests if England lose this series 5-0 and his form fails to improve. There are other options but Prior is the vice-captain and Stuart Broad probably next in line as T20 captain. James Whitaker, the new chairman of selectors, has much to ponder.

(© Independent News Service)

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