England are in a mess. That much, naturally, could be gleaned from the way they capitulated to Australia in five Test matches which required less than three-quarters of their allocated span. Moustachioed marauders swarmed all over wilting wallflowers.
But it goes beyond defeats by 381 runs, 218 runs, 150 runs, eight wickets and 281 runs. Listing them together like that reveals the scale of the slaughter. There was not a close match in sight and that is what has concentrated minds in the past week.
Things, everyone agrees, must change. Nobody of sane disposition expected events to unfold as they did and most observers of sound mind predicted not only a closer contest but an entirely different outcome. The confusion about what is to be done may therefore be understandable so soon after the bitter end to the campaign, when England’s final abject resistance lasted for all of 31.4 overs.
But Andy Flower’s refusal of several invitations on Monday to discuss with detail and candour the nature of the reforms to come was perplexing. England’s head coach has support in high places and more backing from other areas, which are often quite as important, than he perhaps realises. But he will have to be considerably more plain speaking and visionary if he and his team are to recover from this.
In Pictures: Stephen Brenkley’s England team to play Sri Lanka in their next test
In Pictures: Stephen Brenkley’s England team to play Sri Lanka in their next test
1/11 Alastair Cook (capt)
This is the hardest time of his career and he will be a newly minted father by then as well. The summer will not define his place in England’s history but he needs big runs soon and must score them against both Sri Lanka and India. Or else.
2/11 Joe Root
It has not all been plain sailing for the baby-faced Yorkshire opener. As he has been shuffled up and down the order, his weakness on the front foot has been brutally exposed. But England have invested far too much to leave him out of the side for long.
3/11 Ian Bell
This lovely batsman is now drinking in the last-chance saloon. A luminous summer series at home was followed by too many casual dismissals in Australia. No 3, the position he has pined for, could be the making of the last stage of his career.
4/11 James Vince
The Hampshire batsman finished last summer with a flourish, three hundreds and two fifties in his last seven innings. Still only 22, he has been around for five seasons. This would be a big step up but a Lions tour to Sri Lanka in March will tell much more.
5/11 Gary Ballance
Scorer of bundles of runs for Yorkshire, he looked composed in his first Test without going on to make a score. He has to be given a run of four or five Tests. His left-handedness may also be handy, though his footwork is not exactly dainty.
6/11 Ben Stokes
The one shining light from the Ashes; promoted to the team almost by accident, he was a revelation. Assuming his athlete’s body holds together and he learns a little more rigour, he could be the all-rounder who comes along every other generation.
7/11 Jos Buttler
Matt Prior should not be lightly discarded but Buttler is genuinely exciting. He has had to move from Somerset to Lancashire to be sure of a gig behind the stumps. But he has safe hands, spectacular reflexes and the potential to be a batting genius.
8/11 Scott Borthwick
England’s spin cupboard is bare and Graeme Swann will be desperately missed. There is no point in continuing with Monty Panesar, given the other weaknesses in his game, and Borthwick’s canny combativeness.
9/11 Stuart Broad
One of only two players to do himself justice on the Ashes tour, he is the most steadfast of competitors. He needs to find from somewhere more of those thrilling bowling bursts that dismantle sides. It is also crucial he does not neglect his batting.
10/11 Steve Finn
The ridiculous decision to change the law because he knocked off the bails occasionally may yet have a terrible effect on his career. He should be the spearhead of the attack if he simply concentrates on running in and bowling fast.
11/11 Jimmy Anderson
On pitches with a hint of green and a ball with a high seam (there will be no dust bowls this time) Anderson could be irresistible. But it has been a salutary winter for him. Frankly, he has too often looked knackered lately.
“Obviously after a loss of this proportion there has to be change of some description,” he said. “It would not be reasonable to go on doing the same things again, I absolutely agree with that. Exactly what that change looks like I can’t describe right now. I’ve got my own ideas but it would be irresponsible to go into it without discussing them with some key personnel.”
He politely declined to discuss what Alastair Cook might do to improve as a captain, whether Kevin Pietersen may be part of the team again or what his role in it could be, the possible dispensation of senior players, the type of change he might have to effect, the amendments to his own style if there were to be any, the immediate lessons to be learned from the defeat and so on.
Flower confirmed that he would continue in the job and also nailed his colours firmly to Captain Cook’s mast. In the absence of any proper guidance on any issue, it is obviously possible to speculate on all manner of occurrences: a future without Pietersen, Ian Bell, Jimmy Anderson, Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior. Flower hinted at revolution.
“This has been a bad loss,” he said. “As part of our review we’ll be looking at playing personnel and support staff and making sure we’ve got the right people on board for the future, but this will be a new start, and so it should be.
“It does feel like the end of some type of era and there will be some sort of new start. We might have to take a little more pain before we have sustained success again and we might have to ask for a little patience in that regard over the coming months.”
How much more pain the England cricketing public is prepared to take before there is insurrection is extremely doubtful. If Flower and Cook start the summer with a largely re-upholstered team then they might be prepared to stomach a tight series against India late in the summer, if not Sri Lanka early in it. But if it is merely simulated change – a backroom staff member here, a fringe player there – then defeat or draws against either would rightly lead to calls for immediate removal of the head honchos.
Some of England’s recent selections have been astonishing. They used 18 players in this series, one more than they have used anywhere on tour before, and that number increases to 21 in the last 10 Tests. On their tour to Australia in 1958-59, when they also came as favourites searching for a fourth consecutive Ashes victory and were heavily beaten, 4-0, they used 17 players. Of those the Test careers of eight, including such luminaries as Godfrey Evans, Jim Laker, Trevor Bailey and Frank Tyson, were finished no later than early the following summer.
“It would be wrong of me to talk about particular individuals,” Flower said. “We’ve got to sit down and review what’s happened, got to give ourselves a little time. This is the day after the Test finished, so I’m not going to discuss individuals, but looking a little more holistically I think it will be the start of something new and I think Alastair Cook can lead that renewal and rebuilding of the England cricket side.”
About Cook, if nobody or nothing else, he was perfectly unequivocal. He could not have made it clearer that they are in this together or not at all. Flower wants Cook as captain and opening batsman and expects him to succeed in both roles.
“Life can move in certain cycles,” he said. “Alastair is an outstanding cricketer and a very fine man, but his career was never going to go upwards continually. No one’s career does.
“This is a down time for him as a batter. It is quite an interesting time for him on the learning and development front. It is a tough time for him, but he’ll be learning a lot about himself and he’ll be learning a lot about the game. He’ll be learning a lot about leadership at this time and I’m sure his batting will come good again.
“In the long term I don’t think it will mess with his batting. He is a strong bloke and one of his skills is keeping things in perspective. I’m sure his batting will return and his world-class contributions with the bat in hand will certainly come again.”
After such an immense reversal, this was a resounding statement of faith. Had Cook been a favoured son Flower could hardly have spoken more fondly. But the truth is that Cook has had two poor series in succession against Australia (and four moderate ones in all out of five).
His career average, which reached a high of 50.37 in Kolkata 13 months ago, is now down to 46.51 and he averages fewer than 40 against three countries over his 102 Tests – New Zealand, Pakistan and Australia – and a fraction above 40 against South Africa. Flower had better be correct about his ability to combine the jobs because otherwise it could cost England dear.
England’s next Test match is against Sri Lanka at Lord’s on 12 June, six long months away. There is an unalloyed diet of limited-overs cricket until then, including 13 one-day internationals (the World Cup is only a year away) and five Twenty20 internationals before the World Twenty20, which is scheduled to start in Bangladesh in March. Flower will use the intervening time to ponder much more than the quality of his roses or gazing at his navel.