Valeriy Lobanovskyi would have enjoyed watching this Australian cricket team. The Soviet Union’s greatest football manager always liked a plan. Lobanovskyi used to give detailed instructions to his Dynamo Kiev players, covering every eventuality from every position on the pitch. Anyone who deviated from these tactics whether through forgetfulness or unsolicited initiative was immediately substituted. Lobanovskyi’s scientific methods helped Dynamo become the first team from behind the Iron Curtain to lift a major European competition when they annihilated Ferencváros in the 1975 European Cup Winners Cup final.
Very few coaches in any sport have achieved similar success with such a prescriptive approach. Even Lobanovskyi eventually came unstuck. As if dismissal from his position as head coach of the Kuwaiti national team were not humiliation enough, his employers twisted the knife with their explanation: “Lobanovsky has turned the players into robots.”
Yet in 2013 a bald, portly tinny-drinker by the name of Boof has channelled the philosophy of a Ukrainian one assumes he has never heard of to achieve one of cricket’s most unlikely comebacks. After replacing Mickey Arthur on the eve of Australia’s disastrous Ashes tour last summer, Darren Lehmann has masterminded a complete domination of the return series on home soil. The explanation for the turnaround is simple, and most definitely easier said than done: Lehmann has identified plans to target weaknesses in England’s batting and he has found bowlers capable of implementing those plans with precision. As a result England have failed to reach 300 in any of their first innings and none of the batsmen averages anywhere near 40.
ASHES PODCAST: Stephen Brenkley and Tom Collomosse discuss the third day of the Fifth Test. Listen below…
For Alastair Cook, Australia’s plan has been to starve the England captain of anything to cut or pull – his two favourite shots. Just 12% of the 235 unbeaten runs he scored in that memorable Brisbane knock of 2010 were achieved in the ‘V’ down the ground. This time around he has been awarded virtually no scoring alternatives. Cook averages just 29. On the last Ashes tour he averaged 128.
The Australians would not have seen much of Cook’s latest opening partner before the first Test, but it did not take them long to realise that Michael Carberry strongly dislikes facing bowlers from around the wicket. As plans go, it was not a difficult one to fulfil. Simple too was the plot to seize poor Jonathan Trott’s wicket and confidence. It became clear in the one-day series that followed the English Ashes that Trott struggles badly with Mitchell Johnson’s bouncer. The rest, as they say, is history.
Kevin Pietersen may have shown some sparks of resistance but for him too Australia had a plan. As soon as Pietersen comes to the crease Michael Clarke throws the ball to Peter Siddle and packs the leg side with catchers. He knows that Pietersen will refuse to play this vegan banana-muncher with any respect. Two of Pietersen’s greatest strengths – his ego and his ‘Flamingo’ on side flick – have become recurring vulnerabilities in Australia’s hands. When England’s most dangerous batsman chipped Siddle to mid-on at Perth it was the tenth time in Tests he had succumbed to the bowler and the third time in a row this series.
Joe Root and Matt Prior have both been targeted with particularly miserly bowling for different reasons: Root because it exacerbates a tendency to get bogged down and Prior because it is felt his love of strokeplay overrides any patience to wait for the bad ball. Before the 2009 Ashes in the UK, former Australian opener Justin Langer provided coach Tim Nielsen with a crib sheet for each of the opposition players. “The key is he wants to score runs quickly and look good,” Langer wrote of Prior. “Stop him scoring boundaries and he will give you plenty of chances.” The class of 2013 are obviously better listeners. Prior has been dropped for the first time under Andy Flower, as has Root who averaged 27 on tour.
As for England’s hitherto dogged tail, the strategy has been to give Mitchell Johnson the ball and ask him to bowl as fast as he can. Johnson has taken more than half of the dismissals against England’s bowlers, who simply have no answer to his pace. Only Graeme Swann has required anything more complicated. Australia were careful not to offer the off-spinner, whom Mike Selvey rated as one of the finest drivers in world cricket, nothing too full.
These plans have been executed with unerring and unprecedented consistency. Even Ian Bell, in the form of his life after the summer, has succumbed. It would have been entirely understandable had Australia placed a question mark next to Bell’s name, as England’s whiteboards did for Adam Gilchrist for so many years. But as his teammates fell apart around him, Bell has found a way to gift his wicket to a grateful Australia in a series of premature and belated Christmas presents.
Valeriy Lobanovskyi used plans to “force the opponent into the condition you want them to be in.” That is where England’s dazzling batting line-up has found themselves, and it is a horrific place to be: prone in the unforgiving Australian sun with their weaknesses exposed over and over again. There can be nothing more crushing for an international sportsman than having one’s technical or, even worse, mental shortcomings revealed so frequently.
None of which is to say that England lack their own plans. Andy Flower, the best and most advanced coach ever to hold the office, is an avid user of statistical analysis. According to Steve James’ book on England’s cricketing renaissance, each bowler receives target areas measuring 100cm by 15cm. Their analyst, Nathan ‘Numbers’ Leamon, plays matches thousands of times in a Monte Carlo simulator before the team even gets on the plane. Yet, as Flower’s predecessor Duncan Fletcher told James, “plans to dismiss a batsman do not work unless you can bowl five or six balls an over in that area.” England have rattled through Australia’s top order regularly on this tour, only to abandon their strategies with the job half finished. “We’ve got a little bit carried away and gone away from our plan,” admitted James Anderson in Melbourne. England have had Australia at 132-6, 174-4, 143-5 and 97-5 only to let things slip.
One of the main differences between top level sportspeople and their counterparts in ‘the real world’ is that they are rarely able to realize their plans perfectly on cue. Indeed, sport would not be worth watching if tactics were executed without deviation. But that is what the Alastair Cooks of the corporate and professional world do every day. Top barristers do not forget the most basic elements of their craft in the mode of a batting collapse when faced with tough questions from the judge. Surgeons do not slice the wrong tendon when they are having a bad day at the office. The difference, of course, is that they do not have to deal with a fearsome competitor physically interfering with their handicraft. They do not have to perform in front of the quarter of million people who witnessed the Ashes at the MCG.
In that context it is no surprise that even the best athletes cannot reproduce on tap the results they know will secure victory. Rather, the surprise has been Australia’s ability to get so close to that ideal over the course of this series. Thanks in part to Lehmann’s old-school veneer that masks a precision to rival Lobanovskyi’s, there has been no sense of joylessness in Australia’s painting by numbers approach. Indeed, there is something majestic in the uniformity of their bowlers’ pitch-maps. England’s, by contrast, resemble the efforts of the sprinkler that inspired their victory dance on their last visit down under.