Fred's last stand and England have nothing to lose

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The Independent Online

Before the 2009 Ashes began the likeliest outcome seemed to be a drawn series. After more twists and turns than the drivers encounter at Monte Carlo, the sides duly arrive at The Oval all square.

If the scoreline was predictable, the campaign itself has been full of surprises. At full strength the teams are well matched but they have seldom been at their best. Players have lost form, injuries have been suffered, selectors have lost the plot, poor cricket has been produced. In every contest the spoils have gone to the team that turned up.

From the Australians' viewpoint the main problem has been the loss of form endured by Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle and Phil Hughes. All three could have been ditched but in the end the pacemen were retained and the novice opener replaced. Johnson's decline was blamed on his mother who, it seems, dislikes his girlfriend. Well, that's never happened before, has it? He needs lots of bowling before he finds his rhythm. Siddle took it upon himself to provide the missing menace and ended up losing his control. Hughes was prematurely dumped.

Not until the Leeds Test did the Australians approach the standard attained in South Africa, and then they surpassed it. At last a four-pronged pace attack was chosen, finally it was firing on all cylinders. Australians also batted with due diligence. England were swept aside. Not that they helped themselves. Beforehand the home camp was all a dither.

Had England been on top of their game they would already have beaten the Australians. Comparisons with the 2005 series are odious. That epic pitted the two most powerful sides in the world in a furious and compelling confrontation. Here both teams have been as patchy as a tramp's trousers. As far as Strauss and Co were concerned, Cardiff was a lucky escape, Lord's an unexpected triumph, Edgbaston a missed opportunity and Headingley a disaster.

England are considering wholesale changes but the problems run deeper. They have let their top players dictate terms. Allowing Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff to play in the Indian Premier League was weak-willed. Several Australians incurred injuries in the first year of the IPL. On and off the field it is harder than expected.

The recent mentions of Marcus Trescothick and Mark Ramprakash underline another problem. Trescothick is a fine player and Ramprakash has relaxed since he succeeded in another area but their time has past. It's never easy to go back, and rarely productive. Instead England ought to be asking the real question: with all these coaches, investments and academies, where is the next generation? In the end it's not about money or character. It's culture.

Goodness knows what will happen. Persistent readers have been kind enough to point out that at various stages this column has tipped all three results! JM Keynes once observed that his opinion changed as the facts changed. Logic insists that Australia will retain the Ashes. England have not played well enough for long enough. Ricky Ponting deserves no less. And as one of the game's finest batsmen he also deserves to be saluted in his final Test in this country. On the other hand it is Flintoff's Last Stand. Suddenly, too, the hosts have nothing to lose.

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