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Ashes 2013-14 comment: England need to learn from Australia and master art of avoiding 'the creep'

English sport is littered with failures to maintain a winning formula

Adam Gilchrist used to call it “the creep” – the gathering complacency that comes with year after year of success. If the West Indies had been more vigilant when they were at the top of cricket, they might not be where they are now, he once said, and he is not the first to put his finger on the challenge of winning when you are winning which has proved beyond England in their dismal attempts to retain the Ashes.

A close examination of how Australia kept the cycle going for almost 20 years would teach England a thing or two. When Rodney Marsh become involved in the national cricket academy, the tradition of young players being sent out to England to enhance their cricketing education stopped. Marsh sent them to where they didn’t play well – the Indian subcontinent – rather than where they were more comfortable.

Under the leadership of coach John Buchanan the senior squad developed an obsession about “the creep”. Gilchrist relates in his autobiography the story of a team meeting in Durban where Buchanan said that there was “no rule that you have to lose a game eventually”. They all got into that way of thinking. Buchanan also hammered the players in 2003 when they quickly dispersed after destroying Zimbabwe by an innings and 175 runs, when Australia had posted 735 for 6 in the first innings. The coach told them that they should have gone out for a team dinner, at the very least. “His subtext was that we were showing disrespect for the achievement of a victory in Test cricket, and if we kept showing that disrespect, the game would come back and bite us,” Gilchrist recalled.

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England’s disrespect for victory came in a far more palpable form than declining the chance to go out on the razzle. After the Ashes series was won in Durham last summer, they loosened off for The Oval, handed debuts to Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan (who was scarred by the experience) and thus offered Australia a foothold. Then England rested players to allow the tourists – Mitchell Johnson among them – to use the summer’s one-day series to gain some serious momentum. Thank you very much, said the Aussies.

When Shane Warne observed early last month that “No 6 is a weak link” it was chalked up as tedious phoney-war talk. But Warne was right. That spot has been an unresolved problem, festering since the summer. After all the talking, meeting and micro-management England asked a 22-year-old debutant, Ben Stokes, to fill that slot in a white-heat moment in Adelaide. Did that outcome crop up in one of the pre-match sessions on “team dynamics”?

 It’s also hard to laud England for much self-analysis when 21 of their last 40 dismissals have been caught on the leg-side – the measure of a group who believe they can play their way out of trouble and do not need to change.

Compare Steve Waugh, the totem of Australian invincibility, who could have concluded at the height of his country’s power that the hook shot which was getting him out need not concern him. Instead, he ditched it and retired among the pantheon of greats as a winner who kept on winning.

There is nothing unique about the struggle to do the same because English sport is littered with failures to maintain a winning formula. Lewis Moody has written revealingly in these pages about how the Rugby Football Union was unable to build on the World Cup success of 2003, unwilling as it was to embrace Clive Woodward’s plans in their entirety and then quickly seeing him off. The triumph then became a burden, Moody said. Contrast the All Blacks’ development since they won the World Cup in 2011. They are an evolving unit – an even better team now than they were then – and perhaps it is the familiarity of success that makes the knack of winning while winning a more Antipodean concept than an English one.

Football has its repertoire of notable failures, too. Arsène Wenger has never managed to retain the Premier League title with Arsenal, while Manchester City’s loss of the same prize to Manchester United last season was a criminal squandering of the squad at their disposal. Sir Alex Ferguson bucked the trend, of course, and the struggle David Moyes is making of succeeding him reveals the significance of one leader in avoiding “the creep”.

The Australians will tell you that defeat is a great motivator, too. Gilchrist felt his life was on hold for a year as he awaited the chance to make amends for the Ashes defeat of 2005, which felt like a bereavement to him. Buchanan staged his legendary five-day boot camp before the 2006-07 return home series and England were slaughtered. The look on captain Ricky Ponting’s face on the first morning revealed the level of hunger for retribution.

“One of the great experiences of my life,” was how Gilchrist later described the camp. “All that stuff about trusting each other and being a true team, you can write it on a whiteboard but it can’t be achieved unless you go through adversity together.” England have had the adversity. Now comes the time to put the experience to use and remember how to win.

Street League uses football to spread hope

I’ve been a news reporter for most of my years on this great paper, covering lost communities across northern England where the overwhelming lack of self-belief in the young unemployed is what strikes you most. That’s why I found it a source of wonder to see two men from those kinds of places stand tall and proud as they addressed an audience of nearly 100 people at Manchester’s National Football Museum, where I was invited to say some words at the 10th anniversary of the Street League charity last week.

James Ellisson and Loti Nambombe were displaying the confidence that work brings and they had Street League to thank for that. The charity goes looking for some of the 250,000 18-25-year-olds in this country who lack the remotest employment prospects and for whom all hope seems lost. They haul them in and get them interested in football sessions which are the enticing part of their eight–week training courses. The classes in interview technique, CV writing and more are the critical component which comes attached.

Several hundred Jameses and Lotis have gone through the charity’s courses this year and a remarkable 81 per cent have gone on into work or education. Street League’s work is slick because it competes in an intensely competitive funding environment. It has turned an evening’s access to Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge, a supporter, into a remarkably fine film. A football enterprise to lift your heart. It’s not every day you can say that.