Did England become one-dimensional?

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Two England captains, two batsmen, two posh boys and a bowler

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?

An example

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.

In summary

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.


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  1. It’s all very well knocking the likes of Bresnan, but he’s reliable. We just don’t have the spectacular, aggressive, game-changing players as we used to (Trescothick, Flintoff, Harmison) and the ones we do have are either out of form (KP, Prior), tired and over-worked (Anderson, Broad).

    1. It’s not a matter of having spectacular, aggressive, game-changing players. It’s about posing a consistent threat.

      Australia only really have one spectacular, game-changing bowler. The others are steady, but do pose a threat. Bresnan, these days, is just steady. He’s basically bowling like Shane Watson. We’ve a lot of time for him, but he’s not the same player he was.

      People confuse defensive bowling with economical bowling. Previously, England could keep the runs down because they had four very good bowlers, who could almost always ask questions of the batsmen. They now have two very good bowlers and adding two guys to block up an end won’t make the ‘bowling dry’ philosophy work.

    2. In the current Ashes, they were just really tired (and completely gave up in the later part of the series). England’s plan A requires supreme fitness and it worked for a good part of 2 years because their players were fitter than the other team and could keep going longer. That kind of stuff works against India (who get bored easily so there is always a collapse/easy runs around the corner). South Africa in 2012 provided the template to beat England, which was to do the same thing as England but with better players (I can’t think of a better way to put it). Australia did it this time with fitter players.

    3. Regarding the batting – which is the real problem – it’s more about the same players taking a different approach. As we said in the article, Bresnan’s selection is really just symbolic of a general narrowing of horizons.

  2. It’s mysterious, isn’t it? You just wouldn’t expect England to implode so mightily without at least one match where they pulled something together.

    1. When things go badly, you retreat to what’s worked in the past. Unfortunately, what worked best in the past only really worked when England were ahead of the game.

  3. A test match is two contests rolled into one – our batsmen Vs. their bowlers, and our bowlers Vs. their batsmen. In the latter contest, this series was reasonably well fought. Only Brad Haddin won hands down, although Steve Smith also played well. I’m not sure what more we wanted from our bowlers other than Haddin’s wicket a bit earlier. 100, 257, 143, 112 and 97 were Australia’s first innings five-down scores. That’s pretty decent aggression and wicket taking in my book.

    It’s the other contest where we were annihilated. Notwithstanding that Siddle thinks their attack is “the world’s best”, it was a contest between the competent and the appalling. On your behalf, I have summoned my resolve and looked at the series averages. It is a deeply unpleasant place; I now need to shower. Stokes is top with 35, the only player who averaged over 30. He’s followed by KP, Carberry and the dropped Root in that order, with Bell and Cook making up the rest of the 20-somethings.

    When you watch a test batsmen who is out of form what you see is . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4 . . . . . . . 4 . . . 4 4 4 . W. It seems that the hard part of test cricket batting, the bit that they lose when in a bad patch, is the ticking over of runs with singles and twos. Tidy bowling to a player in this situation is deadly, as they inevitably get themselves out sooner or even sooner (hence Siddle’s confusion). This is clearly a mental thing. Players come in and out of form; they each need to find their own way to get back into it – practice, county cricket, drug-fuelled gay orgies, whatever works. And they will find it; they’ve spent their careers doing just that.

    The major thing that needs to be established after this series is not why Cook or KP or Prior are out of form, or how to get their form back. It is why all of them were out of form at the same time. That suggests something a bit deeper, but once found, possibly much easier to fix. If it were me in charge, I think I’d start with the micro-management of the players on tour. Australia had that, then they fired him and things got better.

    1. People only have so much to give. It’s all well and good focusing on the little things that might make a 1% difference, but you get the impression with England that they may have lost perspective when it comes to stuff like that.

      Paying attention to the one-percenters only makes sense if you’re absolutely on top of the 30-percenters. Sometimes you have to apportion your efforts. To give an unfair example of what we mean, there’s little point eating a goji berry breakfast bar if you’ve not yet worked out which shots bring undue risk on a particular pitch.

    2. 100, 257, 143, 112 and 97 for 5 are all good but you need 10 wickets to finish off the innings. Losing that advantage once or twice can be due to luck but giving it up every single time is symptomatic of a deeper malaise. With Swann being relatively useless, the rest of the England attack could never sustain that intensity. Batting after conceding an above par score, after being in a position of strength, can’t be easy. Not that England did themselves any favours by batting like they did, but its a fallacy that the bowlers did a great job.
      I’ve seen this with India all the time, few early wickets, then a partnership and everything goes downhill from there. There is a reason we are horrible playing away and its not just because our batsmen can’t play in seaming conditions. It’s because our seamers will always break down, just a matter of time. The only time we’ve done well overseas is when our (medium) pacers have stood up to the challenge (Zaheer/Sreesanth at their peaks). We win at home simply because our spinners are far better at keeping the pressure on. Batting can save matches, you need bowlers to win a test.

    3. Those resurgences are partly down to England only really having two top bowlers, not four.

      With four, you never have them all at their best simultaneously, but you can always keep the pressure on.

      In a strong four-man attack, Jimmy’s the strike bowler when it swings and then supports a tall bowler when you’re relying on bounce, or the spinner when the wicket’s turning. In this England side, too often everyone’s bowling in support of Broad.

    4. Either way, the “bowlers vs. batsmen” contest was not well fought, England only started brightly to fade off later. Given that they bowled first in each of the first 3 matches, they always started the “batsmen vs. bowlers” contest at a disadvantage.

  4. “Paying attention to the one-percenters only makes sense if you’re absolutely on top of the 30-percenters.”

    That single comment sums up England’s MAJOR tactical flaw. Management were so cocky in this regard that they began to worry about the ‘icing on the cake’ without even thinking about a basic sponge recipe! Add to that they then forgot to turn on the oven.

    Was the writing on the wall already there for all to see? Well, yes. South Africa fought the English fire with their own, oddly identical, fire. England did not learn. Even Brendon McCullum did the SAME thing in NZ and nullified the English threat. This was later wiped out of managements collective memory banks by a Broad session which won England a match (and series) back on home soil.

    Add to this all, an insulting disregard for an Australian side, accompanied by a belief that past glories, such as Finn and Tremletts collective form would somehow magically appear out of a hat. Together with all fingers and toes crossed that Cooks form of the last series in Oz would also come to the surface, even though he’s only made 2 centuries since his promotion to captain. For a team, and sport in general, which places so much emphasis on individual stats, on this occasion they seem to have been selected on an ‘as and when needed’ basis to make whatever case in point.

    There were far too many ‘what ifs’ in this series that the management team relied on. Can any managers from any other walk of life (bar those who dabble in stocks and shares) inform me that such guesswork and blind optimism does actually impress in project planning meetings?

    1. We’d agree with much of that, but perhaps not the insulting disregard for Australia. We don’t recall any players or coaches giving it the big 5-0. We suspect that England were actually pretty realistic about their chances.

    2. KC I only use the term ‘insulting disregard’ based on England’s inability to show any form of tactical strength in any of the 5 tests we have just witnessed.

      I wonder if anyone here has ever boxed. If you have, you are probably aware that you prepare for an opponent in 2 ways. The first is to formulate a game plan to win utilising your individual strengths. Then the majority of the time is working out how you enforce your tactics or ‘make the fighter fight your fight’. All of this however is done under the umbrella of your opponent fighting in their BEST form. Disregard previous upsets, poor match ups and the likes, you always believe you will be up against someone at 100%. Anything less than that is showing disrespect to your opponent.

      I rarely saw any evidence in all but 2 sessions in this series that the management had prepared for an Australian side that had not only blown away the same ageing Indian side who were the feather in England’s victory cap, but had also provided strong opposition for the SA side which destroyed England on home soil.

    1. Not sure Swann was in the pub with Mike Selvey when the seeds for this article were sown.

    2. Much as I enjoy allusion and doublespeak, I’m starting to lose the plot a bit.

      What’s going on?

    3. Just saying that with Selvey and Saker being mates, surely the latter could have gone on record to verify the words of the unnamed source.

    4. Saker would probably then find himself out of a job. Which he might soon be anyway.

      In other news, Graeme Welch to Derbyshire and Alan Richardson to Warwickshire!

    5. Well that’s a shame because all we’re left with is a mysterious lack of quotes or attribution.

    6. If the one outcome of the WORST TOUR EVER is England dropping its best performing batsman…

  5. The BBC has its selection of experts picking their elevens. They mostly seem to go with what’s already there. Harmison even picked Bresnan. Vaughan the tactical genius said you need a spinner to give you control then selected borthwick. Will he give you control?? The batting and bowling was horrendous but the answer seems to be root to open and play ballance. Root hasn’t convinced fully yet though he may do one day I suppose. And Michael Vaughan he really does like himself doesn’t he???

  6. I’ve read so many articles and blogs on 5-0 that I can’t remember who wrote the article that mentioned the anonymous England player who said he felt as if he was being marked on going to the toilet.

    Therein lies a problem.

    Australia Zindabad!

    1. Did that England player get good or bad marks for executing his potty performance skill sets?

  7. You know England are struggling when their best player is a New Zealander.

    Therefore, do not pick any New Zealanders if they want to succeed.

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