Ashes to ashes

One day you’re a hero, the next you’re a bum, so what the hell.

Babe Ruth wasn’t the first sportsman to experience the vertiginous nature of sport, and he won’t be the last — but there has rarely been as precipitous a descent from the heights as the one being experienced just now by Andrew Strauss and his men.

A month ago, England roared; its team, the media held, was ready to challenge for supremacy in the Test world. From that to ‘ill-tempered rabble’ is some fall.

They were a rabble, an ill-tempered bunch of no-hopers and the decline was so steep, so unbroken in every phase of the match that mattered, it was impossible not to conclude that it will take a lot more than a miraculous flight to Lourdes by Flintoff and Pietersen to restore the damage – and any competitive balance to an Ashes series which some of the more romantically inclined believed was within England’s grasp on Friday morning.

What came to pass was rather more than a defeat. It was an investigation conducted by Ricky Ponting and his team into what many believe is the ruling culture of so many areas of English sport.

Culture is a fancy word, though, for a deficiency which has always been fatal in the upper echelons. The killer weakness is an inability to build victory upon victory and take each success as a stepping stone to a more permanent condition of strength rather than see it as some reason for premature and spurious self-congratulation. The former course is the Australian way. That’s how they managed to arrive here as a once great force roundly declared to be on the skids – and then leave so far ahead of their opponents, psychologically and in performance, that it is almost impossible to imagine any meaningful retaliation by England at The Oval next week.

Yesterday morning it was illuminating to walk through the corridor where the Australians waited to take the field. Their exhilaration at the prospect of victory, their sense of pride that they had been to the hardest place most of the team had experienced and emerged as the masters of every situation was so tangible you could cut it.

Ponting was clean-shaven and his eyes glowed more fiercely than any competitor you could remember since the best of the great fighter Roberto Duran.

England by contrast were plainly entombed in the knowledge that they had not even managed the odd hint of meaningful defiance.

The shambolic nature of England’s play in the fourth Test is also the theme of Paul Hayward’s column.

In 48 turbulent hours, England have lurched from being one-nil up with two Tests to go to a team who dare aspire no higher than victory-by-massive-underdog. There have been phases in this Test when they have surrendered all credibility as a fighting force. They have been a team of recidivists – mentally soft compared to the relentless self-improvers Ricky Ponting has inspired to shed their no-name image.

When Australia finish England off, two outcomes will keep the urn in Ponting’s mitt. A draw or an Australian victory at The Oval will preserve the status quo. England would go to Surrey’s home with a much stiffer task than in 2005, when they needed only to share the match to release a tsunami of celebratory fizz.

Retain or regain: which would you bet on? To believe England will need to book Trafalgar Square again (please, no) you would have to dismiss the first six sessions in Leeds as an aberration, a cosmic bad-hair experience, prompted by the loss of Andrew Flintoff and a hotel fire alarm. More to the point, England will have needed to bed down last night believing they are still capable of conquering a side that bowled them out for 102 and then struck 445 before scything down the best English batsmen again, this time for 78 runs.

There is a lot of forgetting and ignoring to be done. And learning. England’s bowlers stuck their hand in the fire for two days running, thus demonstrating a curious inability to learn from pain. The evacuation alarm klaxon that sent them on to the street outside their hotel at 4.30am on Friday was still ringing in their souls by the time they saw that Headingley demands precision and tightly marshalled aggression rather than the short-ball machismo that furnished Australia with so many runs.

That last bit strikes a chord. Watching the early passages of the Australian first innings, I was struck by the way a good tactic turned into an albatross so quickly. In the initial overs, the England bowlers seemed to use the short ball brilliantly to have the Aussies in considerable strife — but by the 6th or 7th over of the innings, the short ball was becoming so predictable, Ponting was waiting on the back foot before Harmison and his mates had even hit their delivery stride.

Mike Atherton says all is not lost: England needs to drop Bell, Bopara and Collingwood and pick Faith, Hope and Freddie — never mind that the last named is being held together by band aids and hope, and the names of the other two don’t show up in the county scoreboards. Scyld Berry adds a fourth name to the list — that of a player who hasn’t turned out for a Test in what, five years? More?

David Gower’s piece meanwhile appears to underline the essential problem England is facing: the best chance to win the Ashes is a result-oriented pitch for the fifth Test, but the problem with that is that England’s fast bowlers have already shown an ability to collectively lose the plot, while the Australian attack is increasingly finding its feet as its bowlers begin to hunt in pairs and Mitchell Johnson appears to return to a measure of form [and then there’s always a fit and ready Brett Lee].

Amidst all the gloom and doom, Martin Johnson predictably has some fun, noting among other things the presence of a light aircraft trailing a ‘Get Well Soon Freddie’ banner in its wake.

Since 2005, England have won more matches without Flintoff than they have with him, which only goes to prove the Mark Twain theory about statistics being closely related to damned lies. Flintoff didn’t take a single wicket at Edgbaston, but he visibly lifted the others with his energy and presence. Here, on the other hand, England’s combined electricity would barely have illuminated a 40-watt bulb.

Which is why, if Flintoff is fit for the final Test, the minimum requirement for the announcement would be the ringing of church bells, a public holiday and a papal puff of white smoke. We can’t be 100% certain just how badly Flintoff’s late withdrawal affected England mentally, but rarely can Headingley have witnessed any team playing with their heads so far up their backsides since the arrest of a pantomime horse here several years ago.

Collectively, the commentary sums up England’s plight quite nicely: the team is deteriorating “in all apartments”, as Justin Langer would did say, and the only antidote anyone can think of is the hope that a Flintoff in some questionable state of fitness will appear on the field, complete with magic wand. Against that, Australia has systematically set right the problems that plagued it in the first and second Tests: Shane Watson in the makeshift slot of opener has nailed his third successive fifty; Michael Clarke and Marcus North are competing to score 100s; Ricky Ponting’s batting form is looking increasingly better; Siddle has been aggressive and Hilfenhaus methodical and both have learnt to bowl as a pair; Mitch Johnson is getting back into a groove of sorts and Stuart Clark provides an additional game breaking option…

I’m getting to where I wish I’d put some decent money on the 2-1 Oz win I’ve been talking up since this thing began — could have made up for some of my losses in the more unpredictable stock market.

In passing, and at a tangent, is Shane Warne gently accusing Langer of plagiarism, here?

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4 thoughts on “Ashes to ashes

  1. No doubt the Aus team is far better than the Eng one. It was amusing to hear Strauss say team balance is a problem after 4 tests! 🙂 Shows how much fear the Aussies have put into them. Contrast this with how Aussies circled wagons around MJ and others after the 2nd test defeat.

    The new Aus players, especially bowlers, blow hot and cold given their day, which is understandable. Aus is just one of the pack now as opposed top of the food chain material. And, Eng can’t even take them on…sad.

  2. Some observations that I wish the English media might care to explain !

    1. Look at the two rain affected matches – at Cardiff, Aus were within one wicket away from a win. At Edgbaston, Aus were effectively 270/5 – so an Eng win wasn’t quite on the radar is it ?

    2. A look at the stats shows, Aus bowlers are the top three wicket takers, and only Strauss figures amongst the top 6 batsmen. So not quite world beating form is it ?

    3. Their talisman Flintoff has 7 wickets to date in the series, 5 of which came in one innings. So what’s the fuss about him playing or not ?

    4. For the last time, Flintoff and Pietersen went to the IPL for the cash – just accept that your two best players are greedy for more dough ! Don’t blame the IPL for Flintoff getting injured – heck the guy would get crocked having his favourite tipple!, and for Pietersen aggravating his Achilles.

    Didn’t the same guys say – see how Bopara used the IPL experience to become a better player, post his centuries against WI.

    Basic fact – Eng were beating above their weight all along this series. Once Aus got their straps all tight, it was clear as daylight the difference amongst the teams.

    • Right. The only thing I would add to this reality check is, England needs also to keep in mind the fact that even this rejuvenated Oz outfit is not totally hot. So the cricketing gulf England has to bridge to become routinely competitive in world cricket is even wider than it appears on the surface.

      • Another thing – trust the Eng media into knee jerk reactions ! The selectors bumbled initially in doing a Bell for KP swap. It’s known Bell can’t perform under pressure, no matter who the opposition is. Then they bring in Harmison. Now they want to drop Bopara/Bell and Harmison and bring back Key/Ramprakash!!!!!!!!!!!! and a crocked Flintoff !!

        Now probably they will ask for a turner ( which since it’s Eng is OK, but if it’s the subcontintent – will be a bad test wicket!!) bring back Monty. And then watch Hauritz perform better than Swann/Monty ! 🙂 Ah fun times ahead. Who would want to be Strauss/Flower ?

        Equally amusing is the post match conferences. Which winning captain or player is going to offer suggestions on how the losing team/player can improve ? 🙂 Didn’t think sport reporters can be this dumb !!!!!!!!

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