James Lawton in Adelaide: Brittle England

After collapsing in Adelaide, the Ashes holders must confront both their weaknesses and a host nation for whom victory is nothing without a genuine contest
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The Independent Online

Even in this land where plain speaking is not an option but a ferocious demand a terrible charge has been levelled against the cricketers of England.

It is that as holders of the Ashes they are impostors. You wouldn't lightly support such a charge against the team which so gloriously ended 18 years of failure in England in the unforgettable summer of 2005.

You wouldn't want your patriotism questioned. You wouldn't want to overreact to a defeat which is still, 24 hours on, a little difficult to believe. But then if you had watched the disintegration of England on Tuesday, so soon after the terrible beating in Brisbane a few days earlier, you might see in the accusation something rather more than routine Pom-bashing. You might, and it is no easy thing to say, get a glimpse of the truth - an awful, almost unthinkable truth, but a truth all the same.

Here is the verdict of The Australian, one of the nation's more balanced newspapers - and the squeamish should look away now: "England's ineptitude was staggering. Its cricket was as uneducated as it was unedifying and its defeat among the most humiliating in the annals of the game. Despite loud claims to the contrary, this England team has neither the personnel nor the mind-set for an Ashes campaign of such intensity. It defies belief it should be in such despair and effectively out of this series after just 10 days of cricket..." These, believe it or not, are words written with a degree of sadness, and not to accept this would be to miss a crucial factor in the Australian sports psyche.

The fact is that if the nation was cast down when England came through to victory at the Oval 15 months ago the grief did not last too long. It was swiftly overtaken by the pleasurable anticipation of the fight to get the Ashes back - and the fact that the series had come alive again after nearly two decades of slipping relentlessly down the sports agenda. The Australian captain, Ricky Ponting, confirmed the point on the eve of the English débâcle here. He said that in the first days after his men returned from England you could already see the hunger in their eyes.

We did not see hunger in English eyes these last few days. We saw befuddlement. We saw a team that had neither the spirit nor the nous to exploit the vast advantage of batting first on a lifeless wicket, that, even after the abject collapse of English batsmen on the last day, still had no ambush for the likes of Ponting and his superb lieutenants Mike Hussey and Michael Clarke.

Australian delight was unlimited after the climax of one of the most extraordinary day's play in the history of Test cricket. But unless England stand and fight in Perth in the third Test next week, and the coach, Duncan Fletcher, and captain, Andrew Flintoff ,shake themselves into a coherent selection process rather than something that looks uncomfortably like the kind of exclusive old boys club so recently run by the former England football coach Sven Goran Eriksson, you can be sure the Australian public will sicken of the slaughter soon enough.

Already there is a crushing sense of anticlimax at the reality of a series which had seemed to promise something rather more than a semblance of a fight.

Ian Chappell, one of the hardest, most driven of Australian captains, has expressed this mood with typical candour. He was appalled by the sight of Flintoff setting a defensive field at the formative stage of Australia's pursuit of 168 winning runs in 36 overs. He said: "Captains set fields for bowlers they can trust to deliver the ball in the right places. If this is the best field he can set for Ashley Giles, there is an inescapable conclusion. This bowler should not be playing Test cricket." It is one of several selection scandals that inevitably is shaping almost every view of the English effort.

Giles, we are told from behind the straight faces of Fletcher and Flintoff, is in the team because of the weight of batting he brings to the position of No 8. Here he scored 27 at the end of England's marathon first innings - and a duck when the pressure was on as Shane Warne, whose meaning to Australia simply mocks Giles's role for England, bowled 32 overs and took four wickets for 49 runs. Not the least staggering aspect of the preference for Giles over the vastly superior attacking potential of Monty Panesar is that he was playing his first top-flight game in a year in Brisbane.

Panesar has played 10 Tests and taken 32 wickets, among them some of the great scalps of the international game. He is a player who attacks batsman, undermines them. The Australians were nonplussed when he was excluded from this last Test.

It is the same with the selection of Geraint Jones over Chris Read. Jones is adjudged to be the superior batsman, but here he made one and 10, and where do you begin the calculation of loss if Jones' inferior wicketkeeping technique allows a Ponting or a Hussey to escape England's net? And what do we make of the indulgence of the captain's close friend Steve Harmison? He is a talented bowler trying to remake himself. In the middle of an Ashes series. It is another matter for Australian disbelief.

In the wake of the disaster here Fletcher seemed to be in some kind of denial of logic. He cited Warne's contribution with the bat for Australia, pointing out that, in his century stand with Hussey in the first innings, the master spinner had put pressure on England. It was an astonishing non sequitur. Warne plays for Australia not because he is a decent batsman but because of what he does to the minds of his opponents when they walk to the batting crease. To say this is almost like asserting a car's need for petrol. A cricket team needs an attack of variety and threat. Giles is a lower order batsmen of competence but in the league table of spin bowlers he has no place at the highest level. It is why Panesar sat in the dressing room here for five days in a state of scarcely supportable sadness.

In Perth a new drama involves the possible return of Michael Vaughan. It is a mark of English desperation that there is the possibility of another player so long away from the intensity of action at the highest level moving into the front line.

But then the appeal of Vaughan is plain enough, whatever it does to the besieged confidence of the new captain Flintoff, the hero of 2005 but now an almost tragic figure as he struggles for fitness and some glint of light in the huge challenge his leadership now faces.

Sometimes the value of a certain presence in a winning team can only be truly assessed when it has gone absent. This is surely true in the case of Vaughan, but if his sharp - and hard - cricket intelligence has been so sorely missed these last few weeks, the idea of him appearing in the third Test remains bizarre. He cannot hope to do anything more than grope for the kind of batting facility which made him one of the world's top players.

Here, the comparison with Australia's Ponting would become unbearably harsh. Ponting has come into this series aflame with ambition and form. Clearly he will give England no quarter. Defeat in England is more than a wound, it is something that has to be expelled from his thoughts and his system before normal life can resume. The result, already, is threatening to be a historic accumulation of runs.

Against such motivation, and accomplishment, the English position is indeed dire. Whether it constitutes a case of competitive fraud - and their branding as impostors - is of course another much more serious charge. But in the current climate it is inevitably in the air.

Here, champions are required at the very least to stand up and show a little fight when it matters most. Thus far, it hasn't happened. It is why Australia have no doubt they will reclaim the Ashes - only the fear that there can be little true glory if England continue to default.