James Lawton: Results of Fletcher's failure clear for all to see in ashes of this disastrous campaign

It is clear that Fletcher has been out-thought outplanned and outmotivated
Click to follow

There should be no tea or sympathy, not a drop of it, in the wake of what now appears to be England's instant surrender of the Ashes, no more than there should have been following the nation's football World Cup disaster. We asked for it - and we duly received.

What precisely? Irrefutable evidence that English team sport is simply not equipped, in either hardness or true understanding of the challenge, at the highest level. We like the plaudits that come with any occasional, and almost invariably fleeting, possession of the high ground, but not so much some of the other requirements of unfamiliar territory. We are not so keen on the gutting out of performance in discouraging circumstances. Nor the back-aching application that is needed first to get to the mountain top, then to stay there.

Australians, appalled but also intensely mobilised by the loss of the Ashes in England in 2005, have been shocked by the inadequacies of the English preparation and selection - and competitive will.

In Adelaide, where in the second Test England produced some still-born hints that they might be toughening up after the slaughter in Brisbane, the batsman Ian Bell was asked if he thought he and his team-mates had sacrificed enough in defence of the Ashes.

Should they not have foregone a little home leave after their limp performance in the Champions Trophy in India and made their way directly to Australia, where they might at least have worked a little on the battle-hardening required so desperately, not least by members of the squad, Ashley Giles and James Anderson, who had gone a year without first-class competition. Bell seemed a little aghast at the question - just as Australians were at his answer, which was an outright and almost dismissive denial.

The greatest scandal - apart from the lack of fighting edge displayed by Steve Harmison at the dawn of the contest - was the atrocious decision to pick Giles in front of Monty Panesar.

No one was saying that Panesar was a sure-fire Ashes winner. Only that he was an aggressively spirited bowler who in 10 Test matches had claimed 32 wickets, including some of the game's biggest scalps, men like Sachin Tendulkar, Inzamam-ul-Haq, and Mohammad Yousuf, for whom a rigorous education in the playing of spin bowling was among their first rites of passage. Panesar didn't only represent the possibility of a striking new weapon in England's attack. He also promised a fresh state of mind, optimistic, attacking, filled with a belief in his own ability to make a difference.

The failure of the coach Duncan Fletcher first to recognise this, and then insist on Panesar's presence despite the objections of captain Andrew Flintoff, especially after the barrenness of Giles' bowling performance in Brisbane, was not so much foible as a betrayal.

Just as England's football management under Sven Goran Eriksson doggedly refused to interfere with the establishment of David Beckham and the rest of a dysfunctional midfield, and paid inevitable consequences, Fletcher was intransigent both on Giles and his favourite son wicketkeeper, Geraint Jones, a mediocre gloveman of catastrophically dwindling batting standards.

Fletcher must surely now pay a price that should have been levied on Eriksson, not after his third successive failure to get beyond the quarter-finals of a major tournament, while revealing a strategic and tactical paralysis embarrassing to see, but when the condition first manifested itself on a steamy afternoon in Japan, when England, having gone a goal ahead and then seen their Brazilian opponents reduced to 10 men, failed utterly to apply pressure.

In the débâcle in Japan, Eriksson was caught inert and powerless on the touchline. He should have been relieved of command immediately. Instead the Football Association had to wait for Eriksson to be caught in a journalistic sting that stripped down the last of his credibility.

Fletcher's demise has been more straightforward. He has been out-thought, outplanned, outmotivated. When Panesar claimed his fifth wicket at the WACA, Fletcher, like Eriksson, was trapped by the prying lens. His face showed no emotion, certainly no exhilaration. Here was an English cricketer pouring life back into the desperately faltering Ashes campaign. Here was Panesar riveting a ground long considered one of the most menacing environments for visiting teams. Yet Fletcher might have been contemplating a rainy afternoon at Trent Bridge. No doubt he has done valuable work in the past, lifting the competitive standards of English cricket, but you are only as good as your last campaign and the most vital one of his career was falling around him.

There were other discouraging images for the last hopes of English cricket yesterday morning. One was of Kevin Pietersen, the great natural hope of the English cause, virtually running up the white flag in a series of non-committal answers. Big in Brisbane, huge in Adelaide, and comfortably England's most potent batting presence in Perth, here was Pietersen in denial after throwing away his team's most valuable wicket, one which preceded a 40-run last stand by Harmison and, of all people, Panesar.

Pietersen scowled and shrugged - and was then replaced on the screen by Stuart Clark, one of the key reasons Australia yesterday morning so quickly returned at least one hand on to the Ashes urn. Clark was as low-key as at any point in his brilliant emergence from under the shadow of Glenn McGrath. The great seam bowler has been both Clark's inspiration and his burden. Long overlooked because he was said to be merely a clone of McGrath, Clark has risen superbly to his challenge and yesterday there was no hint of impending triumphalism. There was still a job to be done. His face spoke of the joy of battle.

Clark and Michael Hussey are unlikely to impinge on their captain Ricky Ponting's inexorable progress to the award for the series' most outstanding individual, but in many ways, they - and the re-emerging Michael Clarke - provide the most compelling reasons why the ageing Australian team have hit back with such force.

None of them has ever touched the kind of celebrity that engulfed England's Ashes heroes. They have no autobiographies on the book shelves, no memories of parades through Melbourne or Sydney. They came into this series with the most basic of agendas. They had to prove themselves, show that their late runs for the glory were entirely justified, built not on a splash or two but a relentless education in the game.

Going into the first Test at The Gabba with a huge, astonishingly quickly won reputation, Hussey reflected on an earlier Test failure on the ground. He recalled how he had gone out to bat with the challenges of his youth still bouncing around in his head. He thought of the early dreaming in his backyard in Western Australia, how much he had yearned for a chance to wear the old green baggy.

The thoughts, he recalled, were too intrusive, too distracting and he paid a terrible price, a poor performance and instant exclusion from the circle into which he had pined so hard to break.

In the last few weeks it seems that Hussey has cleared his brain of all but the imperative of playing to the peak of his ability. The result has been a dazzling consistency. Not only has Hussey scored runs, piles of them, he has shown a front so invulnerable it has surely been a prime source of English despair.

Hussey would no more play the kind of shot which separated Pietersen from his wicket at the WACA than he would forget to tighten his batting pads. His concentration, his judgement, his pacing of an innings, have been nothing less than awesome.

Against such professionalism, English cricket has crashed from one crisis of will to another. Is there mitigation? No doubt a little. The loss of Michael Vaughan has been grievous. Flintoff's injury is a cruel additional pressure, along with those of the captaincy which have stripped away so much of the exuberance and the self-belief which made him such a national hero in 2005. Andrew Strauss, no doubt, has been unlucky in his last two dismissals, but then it is also true that he virtually threw away his wicket in his first three innings. Also undeniable is that the Australians have been, at almost every stage, sharper, more determined, more conditioned to the challenge.

The Australians lost the Ashes, but not their understanding of what it takes to be natural-born winners. It would be good to believe that with what seemed, in the small hours of yesterday morning, their own loss of the prize, England have gained at least a little of that knowledge. There is a strong suspicion, however. It is that England learnt nothing from one of their greatest triumphs, no more than they will one of their most catastrophic defeats.

What will it take? A new coach, surely, and a firmer understanding that true champions take nothing for granted, least of all their own publicity.