Cricket: United they flattered, divided they fell

'We haven't played as a team. It's as if we haven't realised that the role of every single member is vital'
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WHEN the England squad designed to reclaim the Ashes, Antipodean boots were in no immediate danger of being damaged by quaking. The general reaction was polite and ever hopeful of a close contest, so long as Australia won it, but no response was more pertinent than the one which went: "It looks like the team that's been beaten before."

It is as well to remember that in this darkest of weeks when they have been beaten again. England travelled in hope rather than expectation and in each of the three matches played in the series so far have found that was being risibly optimistic. Australia's suspicion that the series would contain not only familiar faces but also have a similar outcome has proved to be well-founded.

But nobody, surely, expected what has transpired so far. The gruesome mauling in Adelaide merely followed a horrific slaughter in Perth and an appalling clobbering to within an inch of England's life in Brisbane.

"I am amazed that we have gone like we have," said Jack Birkenshaw, the wise and wily coach who guided Leicestershire to the County Championship last season and knows the trick of how to draw deep from an apparently shallow well. "I really thought that this time we would push them hard, that it would be hard to win but that we would make them fight all the way. That hasn't happened and the worst aspect of it is that we haven't played as a team. It is as if we haven't realised that the role of every single member is vital. A batsman isn't going to get runs all the time, of course not, but when he's not getting hundreds he must try to get 20s or 30s, chip in and the same goes for the lower order."

Birkenshaw was apportioning no blame, he was simply aghast at the tide of events. Like everybody else connected with the game he had ideas about what went wrong but was canny enough not to offer any quick-fire solutions. "I thought it was a shortcoming on our part that we've nobody in the side who's a real cutter of the ball, playing with a horizontal bat. When you're up against an attack like the one they've got that can be pretty vital, otherwise you might be waiting an age to score a run.

"They've bowled well but they've also been prepared to bowl the odd bad ball to get a wicket. Look at Colin Miller. He bowled some dross but he turned the ball a long way and bowled some great wicket-taking deliveries. We didn't, there was no room for trying much different. Maybe that comes from confidence and confidence comes from winning and well... I just wonder if we might have gone too far as well in one direction with our training. Of course, they've got to be fit but I'm a bit of a believer in thinking that working on technique and developing it can be better than doing 1,000 push-ups."

But Birkenshaw's real sadness was the seeming failure of too many individuals to take responsibility for the team, an aspect of which he has constantly reminded his charges at Leicestershire. While remaining bewildered at Graeme Hick's sad, staggering ability to do his rabbits-in-headlights impression - "you can't believe it can you, a bloke with his talent" - he has been equally alarmed at the performance of the tail, as personified by Alan Mullally, who has only just stopped short of going to the crease sporting a fluffy tail and eating lettuce. "He's made fifties for us. I don't know what he's been thinking of out there."

It is grim stuff, make no mistake, as it was probably always bound to be but let us not think that any of it is new. Englishmen have spent the greater part of this century waiting for the Ashes, a prospect they have now been spared since that is not now possible until 2001. Or not.

Australia held the Ashes at the start of this century, having won them in July 1899, and by its end will have held them for a few days under 62 years. The longest period of 18 years 362 days spanned six series and also the Second World War but as Don Bradman was playing at the time they would probably not have been deprived of them then either.

The present trot is so far only the third-longest stretch, though it will become the second depending on what happens and when in two years. For now, that place belongs to the period between February 1959 and February 1971 which was also six series. And that was an England team which contained luminaries such as Ken Barrington and Ted Dexter, men who never once appeared in an Ashes-winning team.

Such now is the fate which awaits the present England representatives who can avoid another unwanted piece of history only by winning the next two Test matches. Australia are already assured of holding the Ashes for the sixth successive series for the third time but never before have they won every rubber in those sequences. England shared a rubber once in the 18-year run (1-1 in 1938) and three times in the last year 12-year span.

The outlook is grim this time and while Pricewaterhouse Cooper Ratings were not invented in the previous dark ages it is doubtful that they would have made such bleak reading. The points of England's top seven batsmen are greater than those of the top seven on the last two, equally disastrous tours to Australia (possibly because they are playing seven batsmen this year), but the tail is the weakest of all nine Test countries and among the weakest of all.

Total points for batsmen and bowlers show that this England is ahead of the 1990-91 vintage but behind the 1994-95 blend at a similar stage of the series. So much for figures. The common factor is that they all went down, which is no disgrace, but so far this lot are doing so without a fight.

It will take hitherto unrevealed fortitude to get back into the series now. It may not be beyond them but so far the only glimmer of light, the odd individual achievement apart, is that the next time England cricket needs a sponsor it should simply scan Yellow Pages for the manufacturers of white flags.