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Ashes: England’s winter of discontent complete

Australias cricketers are all smiles as they celebrate with the urn. Picture: Getty

Australias cricketers are all smiles as they celebrate with the urn. Picture: Getty

  • by DAVID CLOUGH
 

There was an unmissable metaphor for England’s 2013-14 Ashes misadventure late on the final afternoon at the SCG.

Ryan Harris, not Mitchell Johnson, was the bowler when Michael Carberry presented a polished back-foot defence – only for his bat to snap in two on impact.

As the blade flipped up almost into the opener’s helmet grille and then flopped limply loose from the handle just below the splice, it was pretty much impossible to avoid a train of thought which led directly back to England’s haplessness in all they have tried to do here this winter. Mercifully, at least the ball resisted a circus-trick ricochet back on to Carberry’s stumps but, in every other respect, it was a moment which encapsulated a series in which precisely nothing has gone right for the beaten tourists.

They have not always been at fault, as in the case of Carberry’s comedy booby-trap bat.

Of course, they have been whitewashed and thoroughly outplayed by a far better team.

Eighteen assorted tourists have lost 5-0 to an unchanged XI by a combined aggregate of 1,030 runs, and eight wickets, having made a single paltry century – by a novice all-rounder – to 10 from Australia.

Statistics of that magnitude do not lie.

Even so, at every single turn, it is true as well to say that circumstance has conspired against England.

They have run into two world-class players, for example, in the form of their lives yet whose participation in this series has happened almost 
by accident.

It was not the forward planning of Cricket Australia that delivered Johnson in such irresistible shape that, at last at the age of 32, he was able to live up to the great Dennis Lillee’s 
billing as a “once-in-a-generation” bowler.

After his descent to laughing-stock status in successive Ashes defeats, in 2009 and 2010-11, the left-armer was deemed 
surplus to requirements barely six months ago for Australia’s 3-0 trouncing in England.

And yet here he was, bowling like the wind at 90 miles per hour-plus and terrorising the England batsmen right from the outset after finding a bouncy Gabba pitch very much to his liking.

Then, there is the curious case of 36-year-old Brad Haddin.

He too appeared to be past his sell-by date less than a year ago, when Australia preferred the left-handed artisan Matthew Wade as their wicketkeeper-batsman.

The hard-nosed Haddin came within a whisker of rescuing last July’s Trent Bridge Test, batting brilliantly with the tail.

Back then, though, it was not meant to be.

This time, however, it inarguably was as he piled up an astonishing – and unique – sequence of 50 runs or more in the first innings of every Test, from number seven in the order.

Just when Alastair Cook thought he that might have the hosts in trouble, out strode Haddin to counter-attack Australia’s way out of any spot of bother as they took complete control in all stations from Brisbane to Sydney.

What of England, though, in all of this?

For the irresistible force, there very definitely was not an immovable object.

Instead, as man of the series Johnson cranked up the pace, there was a succession of tenpin skittles all too ready to topple over.

Six for nine in Brisbane, four for six in Adelaide, a mere four for 17 in Perth, a back-to-form five for six in Melbourne, and finally four for eight in Sydney. England’s calamitous collapses just kept coming.

Magic Johnson, the “demon bowler”, was more often than not the architect with his brilliant pace, bounce and swing.

But there was more to it than that. This was an England team that was ready to yield to his will and skill.

Maybe it was complacency born of three successive series victories against an apparently less-than-vintage Australian crop, or perhaps it was simply a collective ageing of a group of thirtysomething former world-beaters.

Either way, there is a management structure of experts in place – following the Schofield Report into England’s last Ashes whitewash seven years ago – which is paid handsomely to ensure these eventualities are headed off at the pass.

That is not to say that coach Andy Flower and his cohorts can necessarily be blamed for left-field setbacks, such as the sad culmination of batsman Jonathan Trott’s stress-related 
illness, which doubtless will have rocked many of his team-mates too in Brisbane.

But several other factors were perhaps more predictable, even preventable.

The selection, for example, of three 6ft 7in-plus giants to fill one third-seamer role is not a hindsight observation but one which perplexed the majority when the decision was made last September.

Steven Finn’s apparent regression from white-ball wonder to an unpickable passenger on this tour is another query which can be levelled at the coaching personnel.

Finally, the frontline batsmen’s collective “loss of confidence” – as identified by Flower after a fourth successive defeat 
at the MCG – is not easily explained away.

For all Johnson’s brilliance and the combined excellence of an attack also housing the admirable Ryan Harris and tireless Peter Siddle.

After a period of conspicuous success for England under Flower and the captaincy tenures of Andrew Strauss and latterly Cook, perhaps an unprecedented fourth successive Ashes success was simply not their destiny.

Even so, the suspicion lingers that England have not helped themselves this winter.

 

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