James Lawton: England show you can touch the stars but staying there is a different matter

Dynasties are no longer made here. They do not appear to be worth the trouble
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Why is it that English sport can drive gloom into your very bone marrow even on a day as beautiful as the one that saw the first Test here finally turn back into a monumental, almost ritual slaughter? It has a lot to do with unsustained, even betrayed dreams.

It is a recurring reality. It says that for every glorious moment - the kind we had at the Oval 14 months ago when the Ashes were at last regained or down the road from here on a rainy night in Sydney in 2003 when Martin Johnson's rugby team lifted the World Cup - there will be a price.

We all know it well enough. It is the one that was exacted here when England, after being lifted ffor a few hours by the brilliance of Kevin Pietersen and the grit of Paul Collingwood, went so meekly to their fate at the hands of Ricky Ponting's vengeful Aussies. It is the levy on not staying the course, not remembering what it was that brought out your best, of embracing more the rewards than the meaning of what you have done.

The cricketers may be in the dock down here right now but the problem runs across so much of our national sport.

In the cases of cricket and rugby, England briefly touched the stars, but living among them has proved a different matter. The evidence suggests it is a little too strenuous for the national psyche. There are times, and one of them came here this week, when the weakness seems as broad as the San Andreas fault.

Pietersen and Collingwood briefly raised their fists but they couldn't stop England going quietly to their fate. Even the normally inspirational Andrew Flintoff seemed weary of the fight when he shrugged away a 277-run defeat. Rattled analysts probed the wreckage but if they found evidence of severely broken will they could only grope for an explanation.

Yes, of course Steve Harmison was the easiest of all targets. He was supposed to be the lion of the Ashes defence, but with his first ball he announced himself, to the malignant amusement of this vast sports-obsessed land, a distracted pussycat. But then Andrew Strauss, Flintoff's only serious rival as captain in the absence of Michael Vaughan, twice gave away his wicket.

Flintoff coldly dismissed the suggestion that when Harmison misfired so profoundly, he should - as on current form the only English bowler capable of demanding the respect and concern of the Australian batsmen - have stepped up to the bowling crease. The captain said that his role was to go first or second change, but after a few overs at the Gabba last Thursday that was already too late. When Flintoff did come on he bowled with a beautifully controlled venom but by then the alarm bells were redundant. The fire was already out of control.

So we come back to the perennial question. Why is that when so many English sportsmen touch glory their first reaction seems to be to put it back in an envelope and write "return to sender"? Why did England's World Cup football team profit so hugely from the fiction that they had a serious chance of winning the great prize with a shelf-ful of "autobiographies" that were being hammered out even as they struggled to make an impact on the likes of Paraguay and Trinidad & Tobago?

Bob Woolmer, who played Test cricket for England, then made a brilliant reputation as coach of South Africa and Pakistan, thinks he knows at least part of the answer. When his Pakistanis ambushed England so soon after the Ashes glory he said: "When England reach the top they think they have done enough. They sit back and celebrate. When the South Africans get there they look at themselves, perhaps because of their history, and wonder if they are good enough to stay at the top of the mountain. They examine themselves so closely they find reasons why they are not. When the Australians prove they are the best in the world it is only what they believe they deserve. They work for what they achieve and then take it as a right."

A patriot hurting from the events of the last few days might huffily suggest that this is sports psychology written in crayon but perhaps he should look at the evidence. Sporting dynasties are no longer made in England. In terms of cost and time efficiency, they simply do not appear to be worth the trouble.

Nick Faldo, the one English golfer of the modern age to contend seriously on the world stage with six majors, has long held the view that his home country may understand the effort required in becoming the best in the world - but not the one that enables you to maintain that status.

"It's hard work," said Faldo. "You have to hit a million golf balls. You have to work when really it is the last thing you want to do. It is a state of constant effort - and a state of mind."

In the build-up to the opening Test England were buoyed by the belief that the Australians, acknowledged as the world's best team for so long, had simply grown too old for the great challenge. Their ancient certainties, and their fierce bluster, had been first threatened, then exposed in the summer of 2005.

Justin Langer, a ferocious fighter, had taken too many blows at the age of 36, and most notably when he went down in South Africa in his last Test match before the one he played so brilliantly, and aggressively, this week. After being mauled by Harmison in England, and having his career threatened by the blow to his head earlier this year, he was supposed to the most vulnerable of targets. His response: 182 runs and one dismissal. "In Australia we know that to be a great player you have to fight. It is not a matter of age. It is doing something as well as you can for as long as you can," said Langer.

Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne were also said to be rummaging among the last of their powers. Here they claimed 11 of the 20 English wickets. The litany of Australian resurrection is vast. Since running the gauntlet of criticism during the Ashes campaign in England, the captain, Ponting, has scored 10 centuries in 15 Test matches. Even the hard-bitten Australian cricket press is talking about the new Bradman.

Yesterday Ponting was underwhelmed by suggestions that England were merely suffering from the effects of light preparation. The problem was simply a matter of being "under-cooked". After five days under the Gabba grill they would be warmed enough to show a little fight - and a little form. Ponting raised his eyebrows and said that he could see no difference in the opportunities for battle-hardening enjoyed by both teams. You did what you had to do, you had to think about what had gone before and, in Australia's case, you had to put a few things right. We were not discussing rocket science or separating the atom, just the basic dynamics of a winning team.

As the action shifts to Adelaide for Friday's second Test, there is inevitably the hope that England will sing a redemption song more stirring than the mind-numbing chants of a Barmy Army at last audible in a stadium scarcely quarter-filled for the last rites.

We know there is talent sufficient to make something happen. Even in a monstrous defeat, Pietersen again announced himself a star. Flintoff at times was god-like in his approach to the bowling crease. Collingwood reminded us of why the battle honours of his native Durham Light Infantry run so long and so deep. Ian Bell played with some style and nerve in his first-innings half century, before he again become enmeshed in the sorcery of Warne.

There is, maybe, the quorum needed for a fight here, a possibility that between now and the fifth Test in Sydney the worst might just not happen. And what might that be? More of the dwindling of the spirit that made England such a happy place the summer before last, the summer when England's cricketers fought toe to toe with the champions of the world and came off best.

For the moment at least it might have been in another age, before all those book launch parties and triumphal parades and invitations to Downing Street and the palace investitures and Flintoff getting up in the early hours of the morning he was due to play an important international match so he could appear live before the cameras in Pakistan to be beamed back to the television audience for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show.

At the Gabba this week all that celebrity aura came to the most abrupt end. The cricket team feted harder than any in history had to go back to the tough business of proving they were great all over again. Unfortunately, they were doing it against a team for whom facing such a challenge has long been part of their nature. In English sport, we learnt once again, it is a habit rather too easily discarded.