Australia will struggle to retain Ashes if England learn lessons
Saturday 06 January 2007
It may be hard to imagine it after the mother of all thrashings but it is Australia who left an emotional Sydney Cricket Ground with a far more uncertain future awaiting them than England at the conclusion of the fifth Test.
Make no mistake, Australia deserved to win this one-sided Ashes series 5-0. Ricky Ponting's side were magnificent, playing a brand of cricket that no side in the world could have lived with. It was disciplined, skilled, nerveless, ruthless and relentless. Had Andrew Flintoff's side played to their full potential, England would still be nursing a hiding.
But Australian cricket now faces the unenviable task of replacing two of the greatest players the game has produced. Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, despite what most Australians think, do not just fall out of gum trees. They are once-in-the-history-of-cricket players and the Australian squad that defends the Ashes in the summer of 2009 will be nowhere near as intimidating or classy as that which defeated England here.
It will contain several high-quality players and it will be hard to beat but the days of regular three-day drubbings by an innings or 10 wickets are a thing of the past. From now on, Australia, like other teams in world cricket, will have to work hard for their wickets and wins, and it will be interesting to see how a country that is used to success deals with this.
England have an immense amount of analysis and hard work to do too, and it starts with those in positions of power admitting that mistakes have been made. If the selectors, tour organisers and coaches do not accept they have blundered, then nothing will have been gained from the whitewash. Much of England's cricket has been abject but the team's chances were not helped by flawed selection, poor preparation and an underestimation of the opposition.
Comments prior to the series implied that England expected to play against the same Australian side as in 2005. But they did not. The Australian nation was deeply hurt by its defeat in the Ashes and the team ruthlessly sought retribution. They admitted their mistakes, looked to improve and worked tirelessly. It is hard to imagine a player has ever been more determined for revenge than Ponting.
The arrival of wives, girlfriends, children and family before the first Test in Brisbane did not help the team bond. There is a place for families on tour, there has to be, but their presence from the start hindered a squad developing into a close-knit team.
There will be recriminations, and quite rightly so. The England and Wales Cricket Board invested record sums of money on the tour and it needs to be accounted for. No expense, other than a refusal to have an independent selector attending each Test, has been spared, yet the feeling is that a lot of cash has been frittered away.
Yet it is pointless having specialists to prepare the side for every eventuality if they are not given enough time to do their job properly. Getting a team into peak form takes more than the two-and-a-half weeks England allocated, especially when it contains several players who are returning from long-term injuries.
The heads of senior officials will be called for but rash decisions should not be made just to keep a bloodthirsty media or irate fans happy. Australia resisted calls for a mass cull after the loss in 2005. It was a decision that was ridiculed by many in England and led to Ponting's side being christened "Dad's Army" before the series began. Apparently McGrath was too old, Warne's shoulder was knackered, Adam Gilchrist was past it, Matthew Hayden's bluff had been called and Justin Langer was closer to a straitjacket. Yet who is laughing now?
England have been poor in Australia but the demoralised squad contains many exciting and talented young cricketers. A side including Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss, Ian Bell, Kevin Pietersen, Monty Panesar, Matthew Hoggard and Flintoff has a bright future ahead of it and England need to stick with these players. James Anderson and Sajid Mahmood have potential but they need to play more cricket, Stephen Harmison requires a kick up the backside and Paul Collingwood is an outstanding utility player. The only position that needs an overhaul is that of the wicketkeeper.
Duncan Fletcher's position as coach will be questioned but it would only be worth replacing him if the ECB has found a better man to do the job. A poor one-day series and World Cup may force Fletcher to walk but his employers are unlikely to push him. I expect the team that attempts to regain the little urn in 2009 will contain many of the players who forlornly left the SCG yesterday morning. They have the potential to win it back, but have they got the desire?
Flintoff will not captain the 2009 side. Indeed it is highly unlikely the team that plays at the SCG in Tuesday's Twenty20 international will be led by the all-rounder. Michael Vaughan's return as captain is set to be confirmed tomorrow and England supporters will be hoping that his dodgy right knee can cope with the rigours of international cricket. England are a better team with Vaughan at the helm but if this is not the case, Strauss must take over.
It is hard not to feel sorry for Flintoff. He has given the captaincy his best shot but he is not a natural leader. His ongoing ankle problem continues to cause concern and it undermined him here. Flintoff does not inspire with words. It is deeds that set him apart, and his injury prevented him from leading England's charge.
Flintoff needs to be released from the pressure and responsibility of leading the team. England need to encourage him to be a free spirit again and to have some fun. Then, with a strong left ankle, he will return to his best. Flintoff's team-mates have let him down over the past six weeks and nobody more so than Harmison, his closest friend. The first ball of the series cost England only a single run but it highlighted just how under-prepared the team were. It gave Australia the chance to pounce, which they did mercilessly.
Harmison's bowling improved throughout the series but he will never become the performer he should be if he fails to accept that a lot of hard work needs to be put in away from a cricket ground. Having retired from one-day cricket, Harmison can look forward to a three-month break. When asked what he intended to do before the season to make himself a fitter and more consistent bowler, he said that it depended on what Fletcher asked him to do. Can you imagine Glenn McGrath saying that?
There were spells when England gained control in the field but the pressure could not be maintained. Of England's seamers, only the admirable Hoggard conceded less than 3.5 runs per over but he did not get the support he deserved. Flintoff was hampered while Anderson and Mahmood need to bowl hundreds of overs for Lancashire if they are to show the consistency required at this level.
Panesar bowled all right but it was no better than that. His fields were too defensive and he bowled too quickly. These were the tactics of a man who was more interested in containment than taking wickets. But, perhaps we are expecting too much of him. He is only 24 and hopefully he will have learned.
Australians say that to be successful here you need two good opening batsmen, two good opening bowlers and a spinner who can turn the old ball. England's openers were a huge disappointment. Cook showed his quality by scoring a determined hundred in Perth but he and Strauss failed to put on more than 50 in 10 attempts.
The pair will open against West Indies and India in the summer but they need to analyse the way they were dismissed here. Cook needs to let the ball come to him and Strauss must stop trying to impose himself like Langer or Hayden and start hitting the ball down the ground.
Bell will return to England with his reputation enhanced and Collingwood's 206 at Adelaide was the performance of the series. But one of them will go if Vaughan proves his fitness.
Pietersen was his enigmatic self. At times he must have found what was taking place frustrating but he needs to make it less apparent to those watching from the sidelines. He is a great player and will be one of cricket's star attractions for the next decade.
Who toured well? Angus Fraser's ratings
ANDREW FLINTOFF The captain gave it his all but he was not up to it physically or tactically. Flintoff's ankle injury undermined him, in that it took away a means of inspiring the team. His averages are almost the opposite of 2005 - they tell a story.
ANDREW STRAUSS Entered the series with a strong reputation but finished it with people questioning him. Strauss was on the wrong end of three poor decisions but did not play well enough either side of them. He got out softly on too many occasions.
ALASTAIR COOK Remains a high-quality young player but there are areas of his batting that need working on, especially on the front foot. Cook needs to let the ball come to him rather than push at it. Fielding needs to improve, too.
IAN BELL A distinct improvement on 2005, especially in the way that he played Shane Warne. Bell scored four half-centuries and will be disappointed not to have gone on to post a hundred. He leaves Australia with his reputation enhanced.
PAUL COLLINGWOOD Played his part in attempting to get England off to a good start by scoring 96 in Brisbane and 206 in Adelaide but fell away as the series wore on. Four is too high a position for him. Five is his spot.
KEVIN PIETERSEN England's star performer. Pietersen may not be to everyone's taste, but boy can he bat. With better support from the lower order he would have scored a couple more hundreds.
GERAINT JONES The ironic thing about Jones is that his glovework is currently as good as it has ever been. But England need a keeper who can bat and he looked shot here. The quest now is for England to find a new wicketkeeper.
CHRIS READ England looked a far tidier side with Read behind the stumps. Glovework was immaculate and he took several good catches. But he did not look like scoring the runs required from a No 7 batsman. Like Jones he faces an uncertain future.
ASHLEY GILES Giles' tour was probably over before he returned home to attend to his sick wife, but his selection in the first place, after playing no first-class cricket for more than a year, is a subject the selectors need to address.
MATTHEW HOGGARD Tried his socks off and had a far more rewarding tour of Australia than in 2002-03. Hoggard bowled magnificently in Adelaide, where he took 7 for 109, but he did not receive a great deal of support from his fellow bowlers.
STEPHEN HARMISON Oh dear. Bowling improved as the series wore on but where was he at the start? England players should not be trying to find fitness and form during an Ashes series, the hard work should have been done prior to the tour. It was not.
JAMES ANDERSONHow anyone can expect a young bowler who has just recovered from a serious back injury and is becoming used to a modified bowling action to compete on this stage is beyond me. Selectors start explaining, please.
MONTY PANESAR The people's favourite gained belated selection and took 5 for 92 on his recall. But, overall, his bowling in the series was a little disappointing. Panesar bowled too fast. He will learn from the experience and come back a better bowler.
SAJID MAHMOOD Has natural talent but he needs to start performing consistently. Bowls wicket-taking balls but they are surrounded by too much dross. He is not the answer to England's No 8 problem, but who is?
Marcus Trescothick returned home before the first Test. Ed Joyce, Liam Plunkett and Jamie Dalrymple, who replaced Ashley Giles in the squad, did not play a Test.
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