Did they eventually find themselves wedded to one style of play to the exclusion of all else? You could call it the ‘batting time and bowling dry’ philosophy. It was Plan A and it really did work. But perhaps the more it was successful, the less relevant Plans B, C and D seemed to become. Was flexibility sacrificed one almost-imperceptible step at a time?
Arguably, you could see it in the repeated selection of Tim Bresnan instead of more dynamic alternatives. He’s generally a more consistent bowler than any of his rivals, but as his pace has dropped, accuracy and reliability have increasingly become his only real advantages. Picking him over a taller, quicker, less predictable bowler has basically meant putting more and more eggs into the dry bowling basket, removing them from elsewhere.
Perhaps Bresnan could also be seen as being the personification of the narrowing of England’s perspective. There was a time when he famously bowled a ‘heavy ball’ and also delivered reverse swing (which tends to require a bit more pace). However, over time, those qualities have ebbed, leaving someone who basically just bowls to block up an end. Where once he controlled and then attacked when conditions allowed, now he pretty much just delivers the former at all times.
But it’s not just Bresnan…
It’s the whole approach – and maybe this is where Alastair Cook bears some responsibility. Everyone remembers India’s 2011 tour as being some sort of high water mark for emotionless English efficiency, but was this really the way they won series, even back then?
England’s intended declaration batting in the first Test of that series was so dire that it seemed likely they were going to leave a tempting target. Five wickets down and 250 ahead, Matt Prior arrived and played a skittering innings full of dicey running. He made a hundred off 120 balls and it contained just five fours and a six. The situation was far from grave, but it was still a knock that was all about simply willing something to happen.
We can’t imagine the second Test of that series was meticulously planned to pan out as it did either. England were 124-8 in their first innings, whereupon Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann engaged the long handle. They still conceded a first innings deficit, but a Broad hat-trick got them going and then an Ian Bell hundred in the second innings (batting at three, incidentally) finally allowed Plan A to become relevant.
Up until that point, England were basically winging it and they just don’t seem able to do that any more. Even Kevin Pietersen’s been blunted through a desire to be seen to be playing responsibly and when that happens, you know summat’s up.
At their best, once England got on top of the opposition, they could become machine-like. However, that wasn’t generally how they gained their advantage in the first place. In trying to play controlled cricket even when they’re under the cosh, they now seem constrained where they need to be inspired. The kind of cricket you play when you’re ahead doesn’t always work when you’re behind.38 Appeals
England ended this Ashes series much as they’d begun – bowled out for sod all. There’s been no progress. If anything, they’ve looked worse and worse as time has gone on. It actually feels like they’ve refined bad batting, settling on an approach which guarantees a low score every time.
Why would they do that?
That isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds. It’s not something they’ve done deliberately, but they appear to have settled on a kind of middle ground of steadfast paralysis, occasionally spicing it up with unpredictable strokeplay. The stabs of shotmaking come from nowhere and appear to have little reasoning behind them, beyond a general sense that they need to ‘get on with things’.
Australia’s batting has generally been bad, but their approach has at least been coherent. They attacked Graeme Swann – and whichever spinner happened to be playing in his stead; David Warner continued to play shots; Brad Haddin spread the field; Chris Rogers played watchfully. There’s no guarantee that any of these ploys would work on a given day, but at least different people were trying different things. Generally at least one approach came off.
Contrast that with England
Whatever the plans at the outset, pretty much all the batsmen eventually moved towards doing the same thing, which was a ‘being seen to play responsibly’ brand of impotent watchfulness. Even Kevin Pietersen ended up dead-batting, which is just stupid. The whole point of Kevin Pietersen is high risk, high reward.
Australia’s bowlers were more than fine with this default approach and so every now and again, England’s batsmen were forced to try and take the initiative. Invariably, they lost their wickets. You’ve got to choose your moments and your targets for that kind of thing and we’re not convinced England did. It seemed like a batsman would try and attack a particular bowler and if it didn’t go right the first time, they screwed up that plan and tried something different. They didn’t have faith that what they were doing would work given a chance.
Sometimes the selfish thing to do is to play in a way that doesn’t court criticism from a nation basing its opinions on a one-hour highlights programme where they pretty much just see the dismissals. Batsmen need to attack sometimes, but they need to attack selectively and it won’t always work. If it doesn’t work, they need to retain belief in what they’re doing in order that they can attack again. Because otherwise what are you left with?24 Appeals
There’s a lot of talk of it being the end of an era for England; how many of the familiar faces won’t be around for the next Ashes in 2015. It’s not surprising many of us want to throw all our old toys away and buy new ones, but you only have to look at Australia to see that bad sides show ill-advised haste in changing the guard.
You may not read Australian sports pages…
And if you’re English, we’d advise you don’t start at this exact moment, but before the last Ashes series you would have got the impression that Australia had the greatest attack in the world. That doesn’t seem an entirely ludicrous claim right now with three utterly relentless and complementary quick bowlers supported by a decent spinner and an all-rounder who doesn’t let the run-rate rise one iota.
Thing is, they were talking about an almost entirely different bowling attack earlier in the year. The widespread belief was that Australia had found young quick bowlers who would smoosh the Poms without breaking sweat. James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc and Jackson Bird were the chosen ones. Many thought that Peter Siddle should make way for one of them and hardly anyone wanted Mitchell Johnson within a thousand miles of the squad.
The future had arrived. Everyone was in a bloody great rush to get on with it.
The future’s still in the future
Pattinson didn’t tend to look too threatening in that series and averaged 43.85. Mitchell Starc’s form oscillated as wildly as his place in the side and he somehow averaged 32.45. Jackson Bird looked nice and steady in the one match he played, but only took two wickets for 125.
And who’s ripped through the England batting line-up in the return series? Knackered-up old Ryan Harris who will apparently remain precisely five minutes away from a career-ending injury for the rest of time; boring old Peter Siddle; and Mitchell Johnson, a man who’d previously spent a large proportion of his Ashes career crying in dressing rooms.
Throw in a desperation stakes recall for Brad Haddin and you’re halfway to an indomitable Test team.
We always talk about who to drop and who to replace them with because that’s the most obvious form of change, but it’s not always the players so much as the way they are prepared and motivated. This stuff’s invisible to us watching from the stands or on TV. However, the most obvious changes aren’t always the best ones.17 Appeals
There is a chance that James Anderson isn’t the nightwatchman, you realise. He might be the new number three.
But while the batting may have changed considerably, life’s the same for England in the field. Today’s backdrop for the Brad Haddin counterattack was 97-5. We all know the drill by now. The old gnarl-dog’s arguably had a greater impact on a single Ashes series than Adam Gilchrist ever did.
The bowlers were the same too. Scott Borthwick all but Kerriganned himself out of the attack, while Boyd Rankin has clearly spent the last few weeks seizing up, rather than warming up. That left us with Anderson, Broad and Stokes. Get used to it. 2014 could see a few players auditioning to be bowlers four and five.
All of this inspires the feeling that despite bowling Australia out inside a day, England aren’t in a great position. It’s the kind of distorted reasoning that probably affects the team as well. The other way of looking at it is that they’ve somehow had a decent day despite the apparent chaos. But does it feel like that?36 Appeals
Have we all made realistic New Year’s resolutions? No more drinking on Wednesdays? One takeaway a week, but you won’t deliberately order enough for breakfast the next morning as well? Or maybe you’ve resolved to stop playing Australia quite so frequently.
Vivisection’s tempting, but let’s not reach for the scalpel until this England Ashes tour is actually cold. There’s a fifth Test of horror to live through yet.
That said, some of the errors of recent years should perhaps inform selection for this final five-day fiasco. There’s talk of Michael Carberry being dropped and this pretty much sums thing up. His omission would have an impact on an opening position and one in the middle order – in short, the two spots which England haven’t been content with for a long, long time.
There must be better bread
There’s been a lack of regard for the number six slot and a lack of conviction when it comes to openers and so we’ve ended up with the same four batsmen as filling between ever-changing types of bread.
The middle order slot has seen a number of players ‘given a go’ of whom only Joe Root made a decent fist of things. But England weren’t happy with that. Do well at number six and they want you out of there and into what they think of as being one of the proper batting spots.
Root was promoted to England’s other problem position – opener – and despite an Ashes hundred, was deemed a failure. Nick Compton was discarded too, shortly after hitting back-to-back hundreds. It seemed there was always someone better and by a process of deduction, it was determined that that person was Michael Carberry.
I thought you weren’t doing a post-tour dissection
No, we’re not. We just got a bit sidetracked. The point is the dropping of Michael Carberry and the ramifications of that. In this instance, England will presumably pick Gary Ballance. He seems to have good credentials to be a fixture in the middle-order – in which case, stick with him. Show conviction.
But will that happen? Joe Root will, presumably, move back up to opener should Ballance play. Root’s high quality sourdough at number six, but stale Mother’s Pride in the top three. Should he fail again, would they drop him or move him down the order and drop Ballance?
Too much shuffling
A number of openers and number sixes have been killed off, but Root’s been suffering collateral damage from England’s dissatisfaction and uncertainty too. A certain proportion of England’s batting shitness stems from all this low-key shuffling and the lack of conviction from which it stems. It’s rare that a player’s tossed aside after just one match these days, but it’s not unusual for someone to be out on their ear after four or five. It looks better, but the impact’s similar.
Other fifth Test selections
But that isn’t to say that players always get at least a series. Remember Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan? They didn’t even make it onto this tour after playing in the previous Test. Ben Stokes may have benefited from the ‘give ‘em a chance’ approach to selection, but it doesn’t usually work.
This is worth remembering when names like Scott Borthwick crop up. Good luck to him and good luck to any young player picked for England, but he was literally a long way from the England Test team a fortnight ago.36 Appeals
Before we begin, let us just say that we don’t believe in comparing players or ranking them. We’re now going to do precisely that as a kind of academic exercise, primarily to piss off a load of people who will always hold Jacques Kallis in somewhat lower regard than many other cricketers and who will continue to do so regardless of what we say here.
Batsmen v all-rounders
We always find ourself disproportionately annoyed when Michael Vaughan or Andrew Strauss or someone refers to Kevin Pietersen as being ‘England’s best player’.
Hardly. He can’t bowl for shit.
An example we’ve given in the past involved pitting 11 Don Bradmans against 11 Garry Sobers. The rather obvious point this made was that cricket does actually involve bowling and so the best cricketers are those that can both bat and bowl.
Jacques Kallis fits that description better than most.
It’s odd, but Jacques Kallis’ batting is probably underrated. His Test batting average of 55.37 is currently the 15th highest of all time, above contemporaries such as Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. However, it masks the fact that very few of his 45 Test hundreds were ‘daddies’.
Only twice did Kallis bolster his average by passing 200. Compare this to Virender Sehwag who passed 200 six times and 300 twice out of just(?) 23 Test hundreds. Jacques didn’t really do biggies, so he had to score more consistently.
Okay, those 40 red-inkers had a hell of an impact, but it’s also true that South Africa have gone through phases where they’ve produced seam-friendly pitches so he’s been up against that as well.
They always call Kallis a reluctant bowler, but he’s averaged 24 overs a Test match over the course of his career. That’s a lot of work for a man who spent at least a couple of those years as a fat bastard.
You don’t pick up 292 Test wickets without being half-decent either. He may have benefited from being asked to bowl more when conditions have suited him, but you could also say that he’s sometimes not been needed when conditions have been most helpful.
Plus he was quick when the mood took him. Someone (we forget whom and aren’t in the mood for research, but it was someone you’d expect to be a decent judge of these things) once told a story about Kallis getting pissed off about something and bowling far quicker than Allan Donald at the other end. He had it in him.
Short format cricket
The main foundation of the case in favour of Kallis being considered the best of the lot is simply the fact that he’s the finest all-rounder to have played in the modern three-format era.
One-day cricket and then Twenty20 cricket beneath that make different demands on a player and although Kallis appeared almost entirely unsuited to these formats with his careful batting approach, he revealed himself to be if not exceptional at these shorter formats, then certainly well worth his place.
Many boxes ticked
Look, we’re not really saying that Jacques Kallis is the greatest player of all time. We’re just pointing out that where even a half-arsed case can be made, you’re talking about someone who’s moving in those circles.
His exceptional career is too often dismissed with a terse: “Yeah, but he was just a blocker” – or words to that effect. But this was a guy who had to bat pragmatically because for many years the rest of his team’s batting wasn’t all that and if he didn’t score, they lost.
He managed this despite shouldering a workload few have matched – hours of batting and hours of bowling in three different formats. How he didn’t buckle long ago is freakish in itself.
We’ll genuinely miss him. Flaws there may be, but such comprehensive mastery of a sport is a very rare thing indeed.26 Appeals
You’ve got to pace yourself. Australia started this 10-Test series so woefully that they could only ever improve. In hindsight, that was a masterstroke. It’s tempting to talk about momentum, but we’ll stick to a different M-word – motivation. Nothing keeps you going like knowing that you’re gaining on someone.
The corollary of this is that few things in sport are as dispiriting as being overtaken. A bike race is the clearest example of how this works. Cyclists up the road with a few seconds advantage will fight and fight, even when those behind are gaining on them. However, the moment they’re caught, they visibly wilt. They can no longer deny what’s been painfully obvious for the last few kilometres.
If the race is going up a huge mountain pass, the best thing to do when you’re caught is to just let whoever caught you go. The cold, harsh truth is that you were already operating at your maximum and that simply wasn’t good enough. The best you can do is pace yourself in order to reach the summit as quickly and efficiently as possible. Sometimes a cyclist will be more ambitious than that and will redouble their efforts in a bid to stay with whoever caught them. This never works. All that happens is they go into oxygen debt and have to slow down significantly in order to recover.
A forlorn bid
That appears to be pretty much what’s happened to England. They were overtaken on day two of the Brisbane Test and promptly deflated. They have since put in a greater effort in a forlorn bid to stay with superior opposition, but that has basically meant trying to operate beyond their means and so now they’re imploding as a consequence.
England aren’t as bad as they currently appear. They’re just trapped in a long race they can’t win. People are calling for all sorts of changes, but it’s worth considering current circumstances. These aren’t generally bad players, but good players playing badly. Given chance to recover, most will adapt and improve. It’s a bit late, but ever more ferocious attempts to claw back ground on Australia in the short-term are only likely to cause further damage.
This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be judicious droppage with a view to bringing players back again at a later date should they remember how to play cricket.15 Appeals
Yeah? Maybe? 20-odd overs onwards? Bit of something? Yeah?
It’s been a low scoring match; it’s been hard to score; so a bit of movement might make the run chase a bit tense? Yeah?
It’s hard to appear entirely positive when you’re using so many question marks.16 Appeals
Are England and Australia ever going to comprehend the concept of hubris? Australia finished day one shushing the Barmy Army. Have they not been paying attention to the way things have worked this year? They finished day two on 164-9.
Sportsmen aren’t exactly shot-through with dignity, but the Ashes seems to have become a goldfish-memoried in-your-face fest. Every wicket seems to be accompanied by some sort of taunting celebration of vengeance fulfilled. At the same time, players from both sides keep reminding their opponents that ‘cricket has a funny way of biting you on the bum’ – seemingly unaware that the advice is equally applicable to themselves. What’s a normal way to be bitten on the bum, incidentally?
All this talk of it being like a war out there. It’s not. It’s basically a playground squabble. Players react to whatever happened last, without ever seeing the long, tit-for-tat chain of events that led to the most recent slight.
It’s revenge for revenge for revenge for revenge and no-one’s got any perspective and it’ll never end. So actually, maybe it is like a war.9 Appeals
For a team whose coach mocks England for having a boring approach to the game, Australia are hypocritically wedded to maidens. As the series wears on, it’s clear that Mitchell Johnson is just a go-faster stripe on an Astramax van. He distracts us, gains our attention, but this bowling attack is essentially a functional thing. They aim for the top of off stump; they give you nowt.
There are worse strategies.
England simply can’t do anything about it. There seems to be a run-rate threshold beyond which they cannot venture safely and that threshold is dropping the longer the series goes on. When they play within their means, they’re safe, but can’t get anywhere. It’s now reached a point where no batsman can manage more than two runs an over without appearing to lose control.
Why is this? Good bowling is 50 per cent of the equation certainly, but the batsmen are involved too – they aren’t bystanders, despite how it seems. It’s like the team is suddenly stacked with Shane Watsons, unable to find singles.
This is what Paul Collingwood could do. Alastair Cook once spoke admiringly of his skill in this regard when Cook himself, batting at the other end, had been unable to get the ball off the square. Four singles equals one boundary, but you’ll get far less credit for being skilled, even though you’re probably contributing more to the partnership.
Sometimes fours aren’t on the menu. This England batting line-up seems increasingly incapable of finding an alternative form of sustenance.6 Appeals