Five months ago England were Ashes champions having overcome Australia 3-0 in a less than inspiring series triumph. It is hard to argue Alastair Cook’s team weren’t the better side, with the key difference appearing to be the career best form of number five batsman Ian Bell.
On the same day Cook held up the Urn after securing a draw in a rain affected match at the Oval, his team proceeded to celebrate in the middle of the famous ground, belting out the song of their generation, Oasis’ Wonderwall amongst other victory shenanigans. The Test had been far from entertaining, with the home side’s dour batting seemingly forgotten as the country celebrated three straight series wins over the Old Enemy, with their slight chance of victory only made possible by the attacking declaration of Cook’s counterpart Michael Clarke.
Kevin Pietersen almost hit England to an unlikely victory that day, which would have been an unfair result after the way his side had gone about matching Australia’s first innings total, and although Cook held the replica Urn aloft, there was an obvious sense his side was lucky.
They were outplayed in Manchester, saved only by rain; lucky at Trent Bridge where if Stuart Broad’s edge to first slip had been given, the Aussie chase would have been far less; while at The Oval, two poor team selections and some Australian batting resistance gave the tourists momentum leading into the return series in just a few months time.
England have been embarrassing, plain and simple. Australia on the other hand, have shown under Darren Lehmann and Clarke, that they are a resurgent force in world cricket. But how on earth have England let this happen?
Starting at the top with Cook himself, it looks as though his job is safe for now. At just 29 and with a batting record that speaks for itself, his place in the side should never come under threat. Yes his form has been poor across the last two series, perhaps an indication that he is not coping with the pressures of captaincy, but at his best he is pure class, and surely will finish his career as his country’s greatest run-scorer.
His captaincy on the other hand has been nothing short of uninspiring and boring. A couple of points throughout the series spring to mind to back up this statement.
When George Bailey came to the crease in Australia’s second innings in Brisbane, his team were well on top and England were battling to stay in the match. The old adage in cricket is one wicket can bring two, sometimes three, and this is what the tourists needed to somehow rescue their chances of victory.
Bailey’s batting partner at the time was Clarke, who had been playing one of the innings of his career to make his way to the 90s. Having fallen in the first innings of the match to some Stuart Broad brilliance, some felt Australia’s premier batsman was inexplicably under the pump to perform against the blonde speedster. Clarke is as experienced as they come, but striding to the crease knowing a big innings would surely set his side up for a memorable victory, no doubt he would have been feeling the pressure.
What did Cook decide to do? Offer Clarke easy runs to ensure he would be on strike to face Broad. You may argue this was an attacking move to give his strike bowler the opportunity to knock over the Aussie skipper, but instead the defensive field allowed Pup to get off the mark and start seeing the ball. Next over Broad looked to dish out the same short aggressive bowling that saw him pick up Clarke the day before, but instead he was dispatched for two boundaries in the one over to some questionable leg side deliveries.
Suddenly Clarke had moved into double figures in the space of two overs, his groove was found, and England failed to recover.
Looking forward to when Bailey joined him at the crease, some 167-runs later, and now could have been a time to attack.
Clarke pushing for his ton, and Bailey on debut and under pressure to prove to his critics that despite a horrible Sheffield Shield record in 2012-13, his wondrous white ball form could make him a Test quality batsmen. Now could have been a time to re-introduce Broad or Jimmy Anderson, bowlers who had been the cornerstone of England’s Ashes triumph in a move that would have told Bailey that there are no easy runs to be had in Ashes cricket.
Instead the part time slow bowling of Joe Root was used, practically gifting Clarke his century, while also allowing a batsman in their first Test, and an Ashes Test at that, the opportunity to get settled at the crease after a first innings failure. Cook’s defensive mindset meant both Clarke and Bailey were able to attack the tourist’s lack-lustre bowling, further wrenching the match away from England.
Of the current squad that travelled to Australia, one might think that Michael Carberry, Chris Tremlett and Monty Panesar have played their last Ashes matches; Graeme Swann has retired; while it is hard to determine what the future holds for Tim Bresnan, Jonathan Trott, KP, Bell and Steve Finn. With Cook’s captaincy, Andy Flower’s leadership, plus David Staker and Graham Gooch’s roles all under threat, the next time the two sides meet in 2015 on UK soil, the Three Lions will have a completely new team to meet the Aussies.
England have learnt a harsh lesson on selections, tactics and perhaps complacency on this tour, and with the ruthless nature of British sport, you’d think it’s one that will stick.