James Lawton: Self-indulgent triumphalism exposes the central problem in England's capitulation
'Melbourne and Sydney were just fresh places for England to run up the white flag'
Saturday 06 January 2007
In all the disillusionment of England's truly shocking surrender of the Ashes we are now surely down to one last thin hope.
It is that there is a grown-up reaction to the scale of the humiliation, a proper, decent, professional counter-point to the sickeningly woolly minded euphoria which enveloped almost everyone connected with the English game when the Ashes were briefly gathered in during the summer of 2005.
Such a response has to embrace more than the basic requirements which have been so abysmally neglected, routine matters - for teams able to justify their own publicity - like preparation and selection based on today's form and not a bunch of gilded memories. It has to include a gut reaction to the problem that crosses all boundaries in English team sport ... a willingness to be too easily pleased, to rush into self-congratulation when the job has scarcely started.
What are the chances of such renaissance of thinking and purpose? They are not spellbinding. Indeed, some of the indicators are as dismaying as the scale of the capitulation we have been witnessing for the past six weeks. Unquestionably top of the list is the bland statement of the England and Wales Cricket Board, the authors of the most depressing denouement of a national team since Billy Wright's men suffered near annihilation at the mesmerising feet of Hungary's footballers more than 50 years ago, that to remove coach Duncan Fletcher from his ever growing ivory tower would be a "knee-jerk" reaction.
Here we have the nub of England's disaster ... an absolute failure to distinguish between a "knee-jerk" reaction and the kind of decision-making which is required in the face of the most abject failure in any walk of life.
Round about the time of the third Test in Perth Fletcher's no doubt previously valuable period of office had effectively ended. His rationale for a series of bizarrely wretched selection decisions had become acutely embarrassing. His team were in tatters. His captain, Andrew Flintoff, the erstwhile hero, was broken in both body and spirit. It was not a question of jerking knees but making contact with an acutely apparent reality.
It was that something more than mere technique and application and match-tuning separated Australia and England.
It was nothing less than a cultural collision that stripped England's illusions quite bare. Yesterday in the tide of inquest analysis there was just, it seemed here, one nugget of a perfectly authentic response. It came from the former England captain Mike Atherton, a man who displayed more fighting character in one innings in Johannesburg than the combined majority of Andrew Flintoff's team had produced in arguably the five most important Test matches of their lives. Atherton declared that the Ashes of 2006-7 were lost in the early autumn of 2005 - in Trafalgar Square.
The point has been made before, here, and no doubt more significantly by Bob Woolmer, the former England Test batsman and an excellent coach of South Africa and Pakistan. He questioned the balance of England's reaction to their unexpected triumph, and every doubt he expressed then was confirmed without respite in Australia.
The sight of England awash on a sea of triumphalism was - we know beyond all doubt now - for the Australian sports psyche both a nauseating example of self-indulgence and perhaps the most demanding call to arms they had ever received in all their years as the world's best cricket team.
Less overwhelming than Atherton's trenchant position, you had to believe, was that of his fellow pundit - and captain of England - Nasser Hussain.
He said that on the last day of the first Ashes whitewash in 86 years he had two flashes of the kind of revelation you might encounter on the road to Damascus rather than the Sydney Cricket Ground. He said that he had finally grasped that Shane Warne loved cricket - and that Glenn McGrath had overcome certain difficulties before establishing himself in the Australia team.
Rightly, if less than luminously, Hussain drew an inevitable comparison with the well-upholstered lives of such under-performing English heroes as Steve Harmison, who on top of all the other dispiriting evidence of a highly talented player utterly unprogrammed for the demands of his sport's highest challenge, said he would await instructions from coach Fletcher as to the course of his next three or four months as a contracted but somewhat under-employed English cricket star.
To be in Australia at any stage of the slaughter was to be invaded by the sense of two teams travelling along entirely different roads and with mind-sets so unrelated it was hard to believe that anything like parity could be achieved.
After England's first-day implosion in Brisbane, Ashley Giles told a stunned audience that England's team bus to the Gabba had been hushed and tense. Naturally, he said, the team were nervous - it was the opening day of an Ashes series. Were these the triumphant campaigners who took their bows in Trafalgar and then lurched out of Downing Street tired and emotional from days of celebration? Those Aussies not aghast were disbelieving.
The extent of Australian disdain mostly lurked behind polite expressions about the quality of England's play in the odd and inevitably indecisive session. But then it surfaced when Paul Collingwood misguidedly engaged Warne in a sledging battle in which the Australian hero's language and sentiments were rough but aimed at the heart of English pretensions. Warne spat out his contempt for "gongs" handed out on the basis of one brief triumph rather than a career of commitment and dazzling achievement.
Here was the heart of the division between winners and losers. Australian mystification at English reaction to the first Ashes win in nearly 20 years was founded on the very bedrock of their nation's claims to be arguably the best pound-for-pound sporting nation in the world. It is that victory is to be expected; it is the norm created by the highest standards of competitive fury. The pain of defeat in England was so acute not because a good young team had risen brilliantly to their challenge but that for once an Australian side had let their standards drift to an unacceptable degree.
"The team came home from England with hunger in their eyes," said their captain, Ricky Ponting, "and I understood why. We had made too many mistakes. We had played sloppy cricket. The mood the team was in persuaded me that we would beat anyone we played. That was our feeling - and it is one that has held ever since that match at the Oval." When England's grip on the Ashes was formally broken at Perth, Andrew Strauss, almost everybody's idea of the next captain, made what might be described as his team's nearest approach to authentic passion on Australian soil. He reminded everyone of the Australian angst when they lost the Ashes, how determined they were to find redemption. The Aussies had had the most dramatic wake-up call of their careers and the reaction had been ferocious.
Now it would be so in the England camp. The last two Tests in Melbourne and Sydney were far from competitively meaningless farewells for Warne and McGrath and Justin Langer. They were the testing grounds for an England recharged with the ambition that had so thrilled the nation 15 months earlier. But of course neither Melbourne nor Sydney was a testing ground for this spineless England. They were just fresh places to run up the white flag.
Strauss, a man of considerable achievement before his largely nightmarish experiences in Australia, had made a call for higher values, for a show of conviction in English cricket that went deeper than a series of optimistic and increasingly valueless soundbites. Sadly he was projecting a world of English cricket which, for the moment, exists only in his own mind.
Maybe as captain he might whip along a sterner approach, but there is only so much one man can do. England's central contract system has created ease and comfort and destroyed, it has to be concluded, the most crucial element of all, the hard edge of ambition which can be achieved only with outstanding effort - and no little sacrifice.
One Australian critic briefly intruded into the English inquest yesterday. It was over the likely future exclusion of England's best wicketkeeper, Chris Read, because he is unable to justify a No 7 placing in the feeblest tail in world cricket. This is despite the fact that in Sydney, particularly, Read's keeping was a rare point of English excellence - and earned the praise of no one less than Australia's doughty Ian Healy. It was the best he had seen from an English gloveman, he said, in 20 years. The Australian solution to England's crisis thus flowed naturally enough. It was to pick your best six batsmen, your best four bowlers, and your best wicketkeeper, and then get them to play.
It was made to seem so simple but if you are Australian of course it is. You play and you fight - or you disappear. For English cricket it had never seemed more like a secret located somewhere on the other side of the moon.
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