All summer long, England have been derided in some quarters for producing dry, slow pitches. Finally, the players decided enough was enough on Sunday night and thought that a good watering was in order after all.
Unfortunately, their chosen method, after a few jars to celebrate a momentous third Ashes victory in a row, was to urinate on the square at The Kia Oval. This seems to have been the cue for moral outrage about declining standards, the need for top professional players to be role models and no doubt a deep misunderstanding of the groundsman’s craft.
Their mistake, of course, was to be seen by a bunch of Australian journalists who were working late at the ground to meet early deadlines. Immediate strictures were delivered about oafish behaviour and what was acceptable in English culture these days.
It really was not what Andy Flower, their coach, wanted to deal with on Monday. In no particular order, he should have been basking in a large margin of victory, reflecting on his own future in the role which is officially that of team director and whether and how much his position would be affected by the announcement that Hugh Morris, the managing director of England cricket who looks after all playing matters, is leaving to be chief executive and director of cricket at Glamorgan. Instead he had to talk about the practice of his boys weeing in public places.
Flower has been the head coach for four years. He was appointed when the team were at a low ebb in the wake of Kevin Pietersen’s captaincy and not the least of his achievements has been to reintegrate Pietersen into the team – twice. England have won the Ashes three times in a row for the first time since the 1950s and nobody should try to diminish that feat because Australia are not the team they were.
Yet Flower’s position is suddenly under scrutiny. He has never suggested that he wants to go on forever, quite the opposite, but why it is being suggested, as it has been, that now is the time for him to go seems strange. But would he be doing it next year?
“I don’t look that far ahead, to be honest,” he said on Monday. “You never know what’s just round the corner. Where was that story? Why were the ECB [England and Wales Cricket Board] going to get rid of me? You’ll have to talk to the ECB about that.
“I do take the responsibility that the ECB have given me very seriously and I’m supposed to make a difference to English cricket in a positive way and I take that responsibility very seriously. I’ll continue to do that.”
Nobody should read anything into this. Flower has regularly maintained that we simply do not know what is round the corner. He is one of life’s fatalists. The notion of him succeeding Morris cannot be entirely discarded. But the fact that Flower has been able to shed his direct coaching duties for the limited-overs squads makes it less likely.
Flower is a serious man (though not without a sense of mischief) and although he unquestionably has other things he wants to do with his life, it may just have occurred to him that helping a new England team to evolve would be a feat worth achieving. On the other hand, it is just possible that he may see Morris’s departure, which came as a surprise, as the time for him to look elsewhere.
Morris has been in the job for six years and with the ECB for 16. He is returning to Glamorgan, a county he served with distinction as opening batsman and captain, and will bring to it the same studied diligence that has marked his tenure at Lord’s.
The palaver over England’s high jinks at The Oval and the Australians’ concern about our moral welfare is touching but does nothing to address how the Aussies contrived to lose 3-0, their heaviest Ashes defeat for 34 years. That was what allowed England to be on the outfield in the first place.
It is true that England did not play at their most formidable or adept throughout much of the five matches, it is true that Australia supplied a stronger challenge than many expected, it is true that when the sides regroup Down Under soon it may be a different ball game. But England won virtually all the big moments.
When the match was at stake, there was only one winner. That was exemplified at The Oval. All the running had been made by the tourists, much has been made of the fact that to win they were prepared to lose. When the umpires contentiously called it a day because the day was turning into night they were preparing to lose.
Tediously, perhaps erroneously but with thorough professionalism, England had hung on to what they had earlier in the match. The tourists, desperate to avoid becoming the first Australia team since 1977 not to win a Test in an Ashes series, had to gamble when the fourth day’s play was lost to rain.
The main difference between these teams – and a scoreline of 3-0 is never to be sniffed at – was that England know how to win, Australia have forgotten how. England, roundly defeated by South Africa a year ago, have lost only one of their last 14 Test matches and they rectified that defeat against India by coming back to take the series.
They will go to Australia in October more vulnerable than seemed likely. Their batsmen will have to be much better collectively but England are the holders of the Ashes deservedly and by right. They will not be easily deprived of them.
Morris’s major role: His ECB achievements
1997 Joins ECB as technical coaching director after retiring as a player having played three Tests for England.
2005 Promoted to take up role as deputy chief executive after spending six months as acting chief executive.
2007 Appointed managing director of cricket in the wake of the Schofield Report, overseeing three successive Ashes series wins.
2009 Makes Andy Flower interim, and later permanent, England coach after Peter Moores goes.