The statistics suggest that the England cricket team’s recent trip down-under represented the worst Ashes tour in history. After suffering only the third Ashes white-wash in more than 120 years of competition, it was the manner of the defeats that caused such consternation among the travelling Barmy Army and those fans who watched the nightmare unfold at home.
But what exactly went wrong?
While coach Andy Flower’s admission that there had been issues with the team’s erformances for the last 18 months caused many to point the finger at him, the truth is that England simply fell foul of an old and trusted sports adage.
While experts across the land have long suggested that teams who are able to win while underperforming bear the hallmark of champions, it can also leave them bereft in the face of sheer aggression, drive and unrelenting purpose.
Twelve months before the trip to Australia, England had just recorded an historic series win in India. Inspired by Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen and a rejuvenated Monty Panesar, England
were able to outplay a jaded India side to deliver an emphatic 2-1 victory.
With senior professionals such as Graeme Swann, James Anderson and Matt Prior also making valuable contributions, England looked well on course to challenge the dominance of world number one team South Africa.
The following series saw the problems start for England; however, as a lacklustre performance in New Zealand saw Cook’s men scrape a 0-0 draw in the three-test series. England underperformed badly and lacked hunger, as they relied on individual brilliance and bursts of excellence to keep the New Zealanders at bay.
The theme was continued in the two-test home series against the same opponents in the summer, where Cricketer of the Year Matt Prior lost form and a 2-0 score-line did not reflect the mediocrity in England’s play.
With multiple players out of form and a lack of serious competition either on the field or within the squad itself, the home Ashes series should have served as a warning to Cook’s
team. An unnecessarily narrow win at Trent Bridge was followed by a landslide at Lord's, although had second-innings centurion Joe Root not being dropped on eight the result might have been different.
Australia went on to dominate large portions of the games at Old Trafford, Durham and The Oval, only for a combination of bad weather and bursts of individual brilliance from players like Stuart Broad and Ian Bell to deny them a well-deserved win and condemn them to a 3-0 defeat in the five-test series.
In retrospect, England arrived in Australia a broken team. With multiple players lacking form and confidence, they had come to rely on experience and individual performance to turn poor performances into victories. Having mastered the art of winning while underperforming, however, the cracks in the team had been papered over and therefore gone undetected by the usually meticulous Flower and a thoughtful Cook.
In the face of an inspired and fiercely determined Australian unit, the team were faced with the unenviable prospect of reversing more than twelve months of slow decline within a six week period.
So while the leadership between the Brisbane and Adelaide tests may have been lacking, and despite the fact that England struggled to master the conditions and the significant differences between a Dukes and Kookaburra ball, the fact remains that England arrived in Australia the unsuspecting victims of the their own success.
This has left an uncertain future, especially with leading off-spinner Graeme Swann now retired and Jonathon Trott unlikely to play for the foreseeable future.
With the future of coach Flower and senior players such as Pietersen and Prior still uncertain, England have arrived at a crossroads that they have been approaching for nearly eighteen months. The most important thing is that the coaching staff learn quickly from this debacle, and take a more proactive approach to addressing problems and creating competition with a centrally contracted squad.
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