Over the past three Ashes series England had cumulatively triumphed over Australia by a score of 8-2, a significant margin that represented a period of English dominance that hadn’t been seen since the nineteenth century. Even though Australia still had the likes of Ricky Ponting, Michael Hussey and Michael Clarke in the side during this spell they were unable to halt England’s charge both in old blighty and down under, with the poms enjoying career peaks from James Anderson, Graeme Swann, Alistair Cook, Andrew Strauss, Matt Prior and Ian Bell during this period. That’s a long list of players and with just Strauss absent from the current England Ashes party it was widely expected that the visitors would comfortably retain the urn* after their 3-0 success in the corresponding series during the summer.
Of course it hasn’t quite turned out that way. A first test thrashing was followed by the news that Jonathan Trott had left the tour with a stress related illness and the second test in Adelaide was lost in equally brutal fashion. While the margin of defeat was larger in the first test the second was, in my opinion, far more damaging than the Gabba mauling that preceded it. While the first test could have been brushed off as a momentary lapse in a similar manner to the thrashings received at Headingly in ’09 and Perth in ’10, a second consecutive heavy defeat confirmed the fears that the result in Brisbane was not a fluke and that this England team has a number of fatal flaws.
It’s not just the batting lineup that’s under-performing, though. The bowlers have also taken a severe hammering, exemplified by Australia’s total of 570/9 declared in the first dig at Adelaide. That dire showing with the ball came well before the batsmen had folded in the face of Mitchell Johnson and could have negatively influenced such a poor showing with the willow with the looming scoreboard pressure. What about England’s fielding? The three dropped catches on the first day of that second test would turn out to be at least two too many and as cricket fans know all to well it’s in those moments when the game is won and lost.
England’s issues are vast in number and have already been well explored by both the British and Australian media. I’d be retracing covered ground if I was to analyze them further, but when listed those shortcomings sure do make for painful reading: an inability to play the short ball, the resulting failure to confidently play off the front foot, a lack of pace from the seam bowlers, a lack of turn from the spinners, inconsistent team selection and finally a lack of viable alternatives outside of the current team. The last point is the one I don’t think has been covered enough by the mainstream press, and it’s the one I’ll attempt to explore more thoroughly in the following paragraphs.
Mitchell Johnson has been the main topic of discussion thus far during this series, rightly so, and many English observers have wondered aloud about potential options in the fast bowling department. Fight fire with fire, as the saying goes. However with James Anderson and Stuart Broad well entrenched in the team and a relentless commitment to a four man attack that leaves little leeway in terms of a risky selection, something which was highlighted by Flower’s decision to select a well-past-his-best Chris Tremlett for the first test in Brisbane.
The selectors attempted to solve the problem by picking Ben Stokes as a fast-bowling all-rounder for Adelaide which was a novel concept and one I was in favour of at the time. Yet by taking that path England robbed themselves of a genuine batsman at number six in the order and even though Stokes can reach the upper eighties on the speed gun he’s far from Johnson’s pace and at just 22 years of age it’s quite clear that he’s far from the finished product. Don’t mistake that last sentence about Stokes for criticism; I think he could well develop into an all-rounder in the mould of a Botham or a Flintoff. Unfortunately the Durham man has a long way to go, as did Flintoff when he was first exposed to international cricket, and with three ‘must win’ games remaining in this series you could argue now is not the time to nurture young talent. The other fast-bowling options in the touring squad are unsatisfactory; Steven Finn was on the verge of becoming a world class fast man before his action was tinkered with and is now a shadow of the man who excelled against South Africa, while Boyd Rankin struggled so much in the warm up games on this tour that England are loathe to consider him in these conditions.
Another problem position for England on this tour has been the role of spinner, where Graeme Swann has neither posed a threat nor bowled economically. Monty Panesar came in for the second test and performed adequately with the ball, however with the team struggling in both the field and with the bat they can ill afford to carry a player who excels in neither discipline. The fact that Panesar even made it onto the plane for the tour after his summer indiscretions highlighted the lack of spin bowling prospects in the county game, with Simon Kerrigan’s horror show at the Oval demonstrating just how far he is from being a test match bowler. Kerrigan aside, though, there were few if any English spinners who performed well at county level last season which necessitated his trial at the tail end of the Ashes summer. Ollie Rayner deserves an honourable mention for his breakout season with Middlesex, but with all due respect he’s never been considered a test prospect and was released by Sussex at the end of the 2011 campaign. Rayner’s a good county pro; whether or not he has the talent to take wickets at test level remains very much in doubt.
While England have far from ideal situations in the bowling department the batting situation might actually be worse. While there have been more than a few players who’ve scored heavily at county level (most notably the discarded Nick Compton) this has failed to translate into a wealth of batting options forcing their way into Andy Flower’s plans. Ever since Paul Collingwood retired from test cricket nearly three years ago the number six spot has become a revolving door, with the likes of Eoin Morgan, Samit Patel, Jonny Bairstow and James Taylor all having failed to claim the spot for their own when given the opportunity. Joe Root came closest to cementing that position – unfortunately by that time Andrew Strauss had retired atop the order and the order had sprung a new leak. Opening batsman Michael Carberry has performed adequately thus far this winter but at the ripe age of 33 he is far from a long term solution which means that of the batting orders top six only four places are firmly occupied. That problem could be ignored were those four batsmen (Cook, Bell, Root and Pieterson) all firing in unison; however as we’ve all seen over the last twelve months or so that has rarely been the case. When one or more of those ‘gun’ players are struggling the slack needs to be picked up by someone else in the order, something that simply isn’t happening at the moment thanks to the lack of quality reserves in the batting ranks. Maybe Jonny Bairstow gets another chance at Perth and this time takes it. Perhaps Gary Ballance makes an immediate impact when he makes his test debut. The chances of either of those things happening on a pacy WACA wicket are slim, but they’re not quite nil and it’s a gamble that England in their current state need to take.
With father time catching up to some of England’s greatest ever players, particularly Pieterson, Anderson, Swann and Prior, now more than ever Andy Flower needs the county system to produce the players it was set up to provide. Joe Root has so far looked the part but he’s the exception rather than the rule and if that remains to be the case then England could be in for a futile stretch over the next few years not unlike the one ‘enjoyed’ by Australia from 2009 until earlier this year. The fact of the matter is that at 2-0 down this Ashes series is lost. No England team has ever come back from 2-0 down to win against Australia. Not in the nineteenth century, not during World Series cricket – not ever. But it’s not the next three games that Andy Flower and Alistair Cook should worry about. It’s the next three years. As pessimistic as it sounds there is a very real possibility that Cook, like Ricky Ponting before him, will go down in history not only as one of his country’s great players but also as a captain who oversaw sharp decline in the shadow of unprecedented success.
* Not everyone predicted an England win. Read my Ashes betting preview here. Apologies for my self indulgence!