James Lawton: England abuse the language of heroes

In Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, and even in the last gutless minutes of the massacre in Melbourne, it was reasonable to think that it couldn't get any worse.

But each time it has. England are in denial now, and the condition has been growing since the hapless captain, Andrew Flintoff, offered the first set of feeble excuses after the ravaging of his team at The Gabba.

Yesterday Flintoff, besieged by something uncomfortably resembling shell shock, was saying that there was more than enough pride and fight left in the England dressing room to prevent the first whitewash in 86 years. His claim would have been laughable in a dark sort of way had it not been so shot through with pathos.

However, it was the coach, Duncan Fletcher, who drifted furthest from the reality of a truly shameful debacle. He said the essential difference between England and Australia was experience.

It isn't, and if you needed another reason for anger at the pathetic way English cricket has been represented these last few weeks it surely lay in the very need to make the point.

In their 38th and 37th years Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath haven't just learnt how to fight, how to take immense pride and competitive courage out on to the field. They have been doing it all their cricketing lives. They go off into the sunset in Sydney next week with such glory and honour not because they finally discovered the knack of delivering the best of themselves when it truly mattered. It is because it is the only way they know, the only way they have experienced, the only way they have been taught to handle themselves, the only way they have learnt to express the meaning of their careers.

Some might say that the Australian need for total revenge in this Ashes series, their raging intent to settle for nothing less than a 5-0 triumph, speaks of an overweening intensity, an obsessive belief in their own merit. It is one way of looking at it.

Another is that they were so enraged by their own failings when they allowed England, a talented side but one they felt in their bone marrow was not truly in their own league, to claim the Ashes, they simply could not allow the blemish to linger in the annals of the game.

So the whitewash was not something to be merely desired but a psychological necessity. This is the vital difference between the team that staggered themselves - and their nation - by winning the Ashes and the one that couldn't forgive themselves for losing them, not at least until after complete atonement.

This English tour effort is a disaster at every level and the implications, one is bound to say again, run beyond the boundaries of cricket. The pathetic efforts of England's football millionaires in Germany in the summer and the decline of the rugby team since the peak of World Cup victory in 2003 are in one unavoidable sense impossible to separate from what has been happening in Australia.

There are many parallels in all three situations: incoherent preparation; disastrous selection; an unwillingness to tackle the obvious problem of an inadequate coaching set-up. But the greatest link is the failure of the players truly to understand the challenge, and the ongoing requirements, of being the best at what you do.

England's footballers signed their book deals, attended their pre-World Cup party at Beckingham Palace and had their wives and girlfriends installed in the spa town next to their training headquarters.

Similarly, England's cricketers had an orgy of celebration and personal publicity after winning the Ashes and, after a miserable showing in the virtually meaningless Champions Trophy in India, went home to England for "R & R" rather than heading for Australia and vital conditioning. Their wives and girlfriends arrived even as the team were hopelessly failing to gain a foothold.

England played unfit, favoured sons, had their main strike bowler Steve Harmison showing up about as ferociously as a kitten, congratulated themselves at winning the odd session in Test matches that, when it came to the infighting, were never in any doubt, and kept telling us that somewhere, by some magical osmosis, the glory would return.

It wouldn't, and there could be no prizes for intuition for guessing this in the days before the first Test in Brisbane. Australia were perfectly programmed. You had only to be in the same room as the captain, Ricky Ponting, to know how much he ached for the action to be begin and when it did all his talk about the hunger in the eyes of his players, even on the flight home from England, could be seen for what it was: not flimflam, not platitude, but the most basic statement of intent.

In the latest English inquest in Melbourne much is being made of the disappointment of the army of English fans, how they have been shockingly short-changed. The point is being made that England's players had a duty to perform for these seriously out of pocket holidaymakers - and those at home who have gone sleepless in the hope of seeing a little English fight. Maybe it is true. However, surely the better emphasis is that of The Independent's Angus Fraser, a Test bowler of unquenchable spirit whatever the conditions and however unpromising the circumstances. He said that England's players have had one overwhelming duty in Australia. It is to themselves, to their own pride in performance.

That they have failed it, abysmally, is a fact which which will now stand forlornly whatever happens in Sydney.

Defeats, even a stark row of four of them and by such wide margins, are not the worst of it. It is the terrible sense that this is a team which can give only lip service to the principles by which Australian cricket lives so triumphantly, so enduringly.

If you cannot win, at least you can fight, you can hurt, you can raise your fist to the heavens and say, 'Yes, you can beat me, but I will not go easily, I will show you something of what I have'.

England have consistently failed to do this. It means that someone should take Andrew Flintoff aside and tell him that the time has passed when he and his team-mates had the right to talk of pride and fight. It is, after all, the language of heroes. On the wrong lips, as it was in Melbourne, it is capable of just another insult.

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