James Lawton: Ill-tempered rabble whose flaws go right to the top

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The Independent Online

It was a nice day for an execution and the sentence was duly enacted, the severity of which was only marginally lessened by the fact that two of the condemned, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann, managed to produce a defiant little dance on the scaffold steps.

England, though, will be without a particle of self-analysis if they do not grasp the broad sweep of the meaning of their innings and 80-run defeat by Australia.

Even the late heroics of Broad and Swann only served to underline the devastating point. It was that whenever pressure was applied by the Australians over less than two days and half of what was turned into a parody of a Test match, England were found to be wholly inadequate.

In the absence of their crippled talisman Andrew Flintoff and their most talented batsman Kevin Pietersen, England haplessly shed all semblance of being a team.

They were a rabble, an ill-tempered bunch of no-hopers and the decline was so steep, so unbroken in every phase of the match that mattered, it was impossible not to conclude that it will take a lot more than a miraculous flight to Lourdes by Flintoff and Pietersen to restore the damage – and any competitive balance to an Ashes series which some of the more romantically inclined believed was within England's grasp on Friday morning.

What came to pass was rather more than a defeat. It was an investigation conducted by Ricky Ponting and his team into what many believe is the ruling culture of so many areas of English sport.

Culture is a fancy word, though, for a deficiency which has always been fatal in the upper echelons. The killer weakness is an inability to build victory upon victory and take each success as a stepping stone to a more permanent condition of strength rather than see it as some reason for premature and spurious self-congratulation. The former course is the Australian way. That's how they managed to arrive here as a once great force roundly declared to be on the skids – and then leave so far ahead of their opponents, psychologically and in performance, that it is almost impossible to imagine any meaningful retaliation by England at The Oval next week.

Yesterday morning it was illuminating to walk through the corridor where the Australians waited to take the field. Their exhilaration at the prospect of victory, their sense of pride that they had been to the hardest place most of the team had experienced and emerged as the masters of every situation was so tangible you could cut it.

Ponting was clean-shaven and his eyes glowed more fiercely than any competitor you could remember since the best of the great fighter Roberto Duran.

England by contrast were plainly entombed in the knowledge that they had not even managed the odd hint of meaningful defiance.

Some of their apologists – who admittedly could only be found by the most resourceful of search parties yesterday – maintained that England had hada nightmare preparation for this match.

The decision to exclude a kicking and screaming Flintoff was said to have been traumatic. The inconvenience of having to respond to an early-morning hotel fire alarm on the first day was considered to be grave. And then there was the alarm triggered by Matt Prior's back spasm shortly before the start. The truth was obdurate, however, in the face of Australia's formal victory. Teams seriously based in competitive values take such difficulties with the territory they inhabit as top sportsmen.

It was an accidental fire alarm, not a siren signalling a bombing raid. Prior top scored in England's first innings and was one of their few consistently battling combatants.

Flintoff was a huge loss, of course – but then medical opinion was emphatic that had he played the chances were he would have been a passenger. It meant that the rest of the England team were required to stand up and share some of the weight. Instead, they shrivelled, one by one, like a forlorn row of discarded tin soldiers.

No doubt there will now be a massive effort to wheel Flintoff into the last engagement at The Oval and, who knows, it might have some effect.

What is plainly essential is that England withdraw from the front line the most conspicuous victims of battle fatigue, notably Ravi Bopara and Ian Bell. Paul Collingwood's grand total of four runs from two innings, the fact that he looks a ghost of himself in the absence of Pietersen, would also demand closer examination but for his previous record of dogged achievement and the absence of an obvious replacement.

The cases for Robert Key and Jonathan Trott in place of Bopara and Bell are not overwhelming but they might just be free of the kind of baggage that weighed down so heavily on the English batting.

The most pressing need, though, is not so much for new personnel as new spirit, a new conviction to fight.

Broad and Swann did enliven the last rites but their rush of boundaries never began to obscure the vital point that at the formative stages of the game they too had been non-contributors. Broad's late flurry of wickets gave him his best Test figures but most of his success came when Australia had plainly taken an unbreakable grip on the game – and it did not mask the fact that at times his attitude seemed to underline the extent of England's failure.

He spoke to the already distressed Bopara as though he a recalcitrant peon and the umpire Asad Rauf also received a dressing down when he called Broad, with absolute legitimacy, for bowling a wide. The figures of 6 for 91 will now glow on this talented young player's record but if he is smart he will put against them an asterisk of his own. This will indicate that the bulk of his wickets came after the extent of Australia's lead had become academic – and much of his bowling had been as mindlessly counter-productive as any of his team-mates'.

The truth is, sadly, beyond the kind of diverting titillation that came so late in England's misbegotten effort. It says that this was a truly terrible defeat. The implications run beyond the near certainty that it squandered a brilliant chance to win back the Ashes. They say that, once again, English cricket needs to be remade... both in the head and in the heart.

Ashes series so far: Results and fixture

*FIRST TEST (Cardiff, 8-12 July) Match drawn

*SECOND TEST (Lord's, 16-20 July) England won by 115 runs

*THIRD TEST (Edgbaston, 30 July- 3 August) Match drawn

*FOURTH TEST (Headingley, 7-9 August) Australia won by an innings & 80 runs

*FIFTH TEST (The Oval) Thursday 20–Monday 24 August

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