Hunt for lost magic touch: England mislay X-factor which beat the Australians and won over the nation
With their leader and mentor gone and further injuries afflicting key personnel, a small band of heroes have had to face a monumental workload
The Bagh-e-Jinna cricket ground in Lahore lies in a splendid municipal park. In the days of the Raj it was called Lawrence Gardens after a British lieutenant governor, and it remains a place for promenading and contemplation, cocooned from the frenetic city outside its walls.
It is a most improbable setting, but somewhere there, amid the botanical delights, is to be found the root of England's present malaise. It is a pity that they cannot simply return to retrieve what it is they have lost.
On a pleasant Monday morning last November, the opening batsman Andrew Strauss eased a drive through extra cover, not so powerful that it would reach the boundary but precise enough probably to run three. The batsmen completed one and had started on the second when, in mid-pitch, Strauss's partner pulled up and collapsed.
After some medical attention lasting five minutes, the England captain, Michael Vaughan, limped unaided from the pitch. His right knee had mysteriously buckled. Neither his joint nor his team have been quite the same since. Vaughan and England bowed to the inevitable, and Marcus Trescothick was announced as captain in the First Test against Pakistan.
Initially, this did not seem to have made a world of difference. England, confident winners of the Ashes, dominated the opening exchanges of the match. Trescothick scored a big hundred and England were left needing a mere 198 to take a 1-0 lead. At the close on the fourth day England were 24 for 1, Tres-cothick having fallen cheaply.
England were still big favourites. A chance meeting with Vaughan in front of the pavilion sowed the first seed of doubt. In reply to a matter-of-fact statement about impending victory, he said: "Let's just make sure we get these runs first."
Next day, England lost by 22 runs. It is easy now to say that with Vaughan leading them, England would have made it home. What is more certain is that Multan and the events immediately preceding it marked the definitive change. Vaughan came back briefly, but England, stricken by injury, never managed to recapture the magical qualities that allowed them to regain the Ashes.
The side who beat Australia have never played together again, and it is now a race against time to restore both players and order for this winter's contest Down Under. There is a case for blaming two Ashes series, the one recently gone and the one to come, for most of the problems. There is an urge to dwell on both.
It is pushing it a bit to say that everything that could go wrong has done. There have been excellent moments, particularly the series-levelling victory with what was virtually a reserve team against India in Bombay. But a series of physical ailments have been accompanied by a similar number of cricketing aberrations.
From the start of the 2004 season until the end of the Ashes, England played 23 matches, used 20 players and won all five series. They needed exactly the same number of players in nine Tests since, including eight debutants, and have won none of the three series. Five of the 12 who helped bring home the Ashes have been afflicted by injury - though poor Simon Jones, now out for at least another five months, first pulled up in the Fourth Ashes Test.
But it is unquestionable that something else has been missing beyond physical presence. This is not to lay any blame at the considerable feet of Andrew Flintoff, who became captain almost by default as Vaughan's knee went missing again at the start of the Indian tour and Trescothick had to go home for personal reasons.
Flintoff's sheer exuberance (allied to a remarkable will and talent) engineered victory in Bombay. But there is a quality about Vaughan's leadership which makes him one of the great captains. He is eternally eager for his players both to express themselves and enjoy themselves, but a placid exterior conceals an implacably tough man.
His alliance with the coach, Duncan Fletcher, is important, but it is Vaughan who drives his charges. Strauss is captain for the one-day series against Sri Lanka and must try to shepherd a vastly inexperienced, almost bizarre squad. But he is in no doubt about Vaughan's qualities.
"He has done an incredible job over the past few years, never more so than during the Ashes, where we really needed a steadying influence and a guy who could make us feel relaxed enough to go out and play the sort of cricket we needed to win," he said.
"He has this great ability to bring the side together and get them focused on achieving the same goal. He is very, very important to the side. We all feel we are a better side with him in it and a much better side with him leading it."
The other injuries have been unhelpful. They are no more than an unfortunate coincidence, according to England's physiologist, Nigel Stockill. "But there is obviously last summer to be considered, and not only that but the legacy of the past four or five years, starting from rock bottom and rising to beat the best in the world," he said. "We've produced world-class performance with substandard preparation."
Stockill was referring to the amount of cricket so few players had to perform. As a sports scientist, he would much prefer a rotational system. "In effect, we have two Olympics in two years. Olympic athletes don't always manage to peak for one every four. Realistically, we're looking forward to getting them ready for October, November and then the World Cup."
It is almost as if some bodies simply gave out after the Ashes, almost begging for release from the interminable strain. The build-up to the 2005 series lasted a year, do not forget, and the series spanning 54 days was the most pressured experience in the lives of all the participants.
"We've got some serious cricket to play this summer," said David Graveney, the chairman of selectors. "But every conversation I have starts with an inquiry about whether players are going to be fit for the Ashes and then, by the way, what do you think of your opponents today?
"Sportsmen mentally can only play at a certain level for a certain period. There are peaks and troughs, and the intensity last summer was extraordinary. That's not to say this winter won't be, but there was bound to be a bit of a lull." Tellingly, Graveney added: "I hope the Ashes side does play together again."
Then there are the extra-curricular activities. England's players became public property after the Ashes, and it is now suggested that their work off the field, privately and for the England and Wales Cricket Board, determined to cash in on their commodities in every sense, is undermining their endeavours on it. The volume of the protests from all the players suggests that there may be something in this.
There is yet another theory. What England did last summer was matchless and unrepeatable. Perhaps, inadvertently, they realise this. Perhaps playing Australia again will reinspire them, perhaps it will be too late. If only it was as simple as popping over to Bagh-e-Jinna and picking up what was mislaid there.
As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”
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