Despite the funky distortion of that engineered final session, this was not the best of Tests for Andy Flower. Controversial selections that cost his team a shot at victory, coupled with the borefest on Friday, visited upon the England head coach a heap of scorn. Even so, he would not have expected to be reading about his own demise over breakfast. He refused to deny reports on Sunday evening suggesting that his reign will not extend beyond the Ashes return Down Under. “We’re just going to enjoy tonight,” was as far as he would go.
Flower hands over control of the England ship to his second-in-command Ashley Giles for the one-day and T20 engagements, a division of labour introduced precisely to prolong his governance after five years in the job. Flower has two months to recoup, three before the first Test in Brisbane. He has presided over a period of unprecedented success, three successive series wins against Australia plus the epic victory in India. Defeat to Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates was more of an ambush. Only in the home defeat to South Africa last summer has Flower been strategically outmanoeuvred.
Like all great generals, the key is to manage renewal, to recognise when change is needed and to execute. Sir Alex Ferguson proved arguably the greatest exponent of this aspect of leadership in the history of sport, building and rebuilding great football teams at Manchester United over a quarter of a century. Flower learned on Wednesday the risks involved, allowing Chris Tremlett to travel to Durham to compile career-best figures of eight for 96 while Chris Woakes laboured as the third seamer and Simon Kerrigan utterly perished as the second spinner.
Flower confronts a reinvigorated Australia. The 3-0 scoreline in this seris conceals the positive progression Australia made toward finding a settled side. Chris Rogers worked as an opener alongside the restored slugger David Warner. Shane Watson has annexed the troublesome No3 spot and Steve Smith has emerged as a No5 of some merit. With Brad Haddin back in the gloves and Nathan Lyon emerging as a top-class off-spinner, the management trusts to complement quicks Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle, Michael Clarke will fancy his chances of halting Australia’s worst slide in three decades.
It won’t hurt Flower unduly that Australia take away an upgraded outlook. He is far more comfortable under the radar, operating without the forensic scrutiny that follows high expectation. He is naturally combative and will baulk at the propaganda gains made by Australia this summer, pointing to the key sessions that won the day for England, and almost prevailed again in last night’s thrash.
Flower’s team is in transition. The opening partnership is new and unstable. Joe Root will be targeted on the quicker Australian tracks. The experiment with Jonny Bairstow at No6 has failed for now. Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior have had poor summers. Trott will be peppered with short stuff. Flower will have this in mind as he picks the squads.
In selecting Kerrigan for The Oval, Flower will argue that the learned enough to know that a senior squad place this winter has come to soon. Chris Woakes deserves a second crack. Tremlett will travel, but long-term Flower will be looking at the need to replace leading men. Graeme Swann turns 35 in June, Kevin Pietersen, Jimmy Anderson and Matt Prior are all past 30.
At least the weather relented in south London yesterday, providing some ribald entertainment on the last day of the series. The setting of a victory target appeared more wishful thinking on behalf of Australia, who leave with zilch to show for an output that exceeded at least English expectation. England went at it with some interest, batting more positively than at any time in the match, after demonstrating what they really thought of the idea of making a game of it on Friday, eschewing the chance to chase Australia’s first innings total in perfect conditions.
Boring, boring England, sledged Australia, presumably trying to establish at least a moral gain from a series that passed without a win. Cheerleader-in-chief Shane Warne kept up the attack handing Michael Clarke a 5-0 victory over Alastair Cook in the captaincy comparison, hanging the negative label around England necks on Twitter.
Flower was right not to respond to the promptings of the opposition. England fell for that old ruse two decades ago in the final of the Rugby World Cup, allowing the David Campese-led onslaught on their conservative, forward-dominated style fatal traction. England started throwing the ball about at Twickenham. Australia tucked the ball under their jumpers and ran out 12-6 winners. Last night England were a light meter reading from some kind of revenge. Australia deserved their break.