James Lawton: The Ashes were lost in English hearts and minds before the dawn of battle

The Ashes were consumed by the English sporting disease of triumphalism
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The Independent Online

Let's not waste too much time on the Ashes post-mortem. Forensic science is not required. The explanation of a disaster which was forecast in the sky above the Gabba stadium in Brisbane several weeks ago in the most irrevocable terms required only the most perfunctory analysis. You cannot beat anybody, let alone the marvellously activated Australian cricket team, if you don't prepare properly, if you pick the wrong players and those who are palpably unfit, and if you have a command structure so incoherent the man allegedly in charge, coach Duncan Fletcher, was pointing out his lack of overall responsibility in the wake of a shocking second defeat.

What happened in Perth early yesterday was as inevitable as a Ponting century or a competitive tour de force by his principal lieutenant, Shane Warne.

England were beaten by a team superior at every level and the most important one, unfortunately, flew utterly beyond any of the remedies that were being marshalled with all the usual weight of hindsight in the wake of a defeat that was quite shocking.

The most fundamental reason for failure did not lie in any shortfall of planning or common sense, though heaven knows there was no shortage of any of that. England made a less than nominal defence of the Ashes because they didn't have either the resolve, or the spirit to get the job done. The Ashes were lost in English hearts and minds.

A harsh verdict, maybe, but some need not be squeamish about handing it down. Some saw the downfall not as an unpleasant surprise but a screaming fait accompli. They also correctly put their fingers on the time when the Ashes series of 2006-7 was lost.

It was not in that ludicrously sketchy build-up to the challenge that was so feebly met in the last few weeks. It was not when England, having embarrassed themselves in the catchpenny Champions Trophy in India, chose to return home for a few days of "relaxation" rather than head off to the scene of the action which would shape whole careers. It was not when Fletcher and his co-selectors decided to break the basic rule that you go with the fit and the hungry rather than gamble on injury and reputation which had plainly lingered too long on the vine.

The Ashes were lost, so soon after their recovery from a near 20-year void, at the point they were grasped at the Oval 16 months ago. They were consumed by the English sporting disease - triumphalism and its incestuous companion, celebrity.

It is this gnawing reality that must create a certain impatience with the flood of reforms being advocated yesterday. Yes, Ian Botham was right to rail against England's terrible lack of preparation, and to say that such third-rate, money-grabbing diversions as the Champions Trophy should never again interfere with a diligent approach to what will remain cricket's greatest challenge as long as the Australians maintain their superb standards of ambition and professional integrity. Of course the selectorial competence of both Fletcher and captain Andrew Flintoff has to be severely questioned, and used as evidence in support of the need for a new system, after the egregious decisions to prefer Ashley Giles and Geraint Jones to Monty Panesar and Chris Read. Yes, there are many practical things to do. But this should not blind the cricket authorities, any more than those of football and rugby union, that there are any easy solutions.

Recasting the hearts and the minds of an entire sporting culture is a problem, let's face it, that runs a little more deeply.

When "Freddie" Flintoff emerged from 10 Downing Street as glassy-eyed and as composed as a weekend binge drinker, there was much national hilarity and joy. It was misplaced. Flintoff is a wonderful cricketer on his best days and, unquestionably and legitimately, he joined the front rank of national heroes with his extraordinary deeds in the summer of 2005. But it is a matter of record now that when he was still getting over his celebrations and his commercial exploitation of the Ashes triumph, the Australians were booked into a boot camp which, for mostly ageing cricketers, must have carried all the ambience of a commando crash course.

How willingly did they submit to the strenuous exercise? Says the captain, Ricky Ponting: "You had only to look into their eyes to see how hungry they were. Fighting to regain the Ashes, giving it everything, has been the greatest experience of my cricketing life - just as winning the second Test in Adelaide was the greatest victory."

Some English analysis of that defeat was astonishingly woolly-minded. We were said to have dominated for four days and then, for an hour, let slip the competitive reins. It was an extraordinary conclusion, a little like saying you can separate various elements in a battle and run up a score. You don't do that. You ask which army had the stronger will, the clearest sense of what could be achieved - and then the courage to do it.

Those who rose from their English beds last Saturday morning in time to see Adam Gilchrist hit his extraordinary century may congratulate themselves on witnessing the most pivotal phase of the series. They were right to be pleased with themselves because they certainly did see something to store away with the best of sports memories, but pivotal it was not. The Australians had it won at the Gabba and pushed the issue beyond all doubt at the Adelaide Oval.

They did it there with one of the most amazing acts of will ever seen on a cricket field. Warne achieved some of his ultimate sorcery and then, again, there was Michael Hussey hitting the ball with an assurance which became increasingly marked over the three Tests. It was men and boys at the Gabba and, by the denouement in Perth, comparisons had become pitiful.

What is depressing from the English perspective is the certainty of Australia's reaction to their latest triumph. It is of a satisfaction that means most because it is no isolated grab for glory. It is so demonstrably about the reviving of a tradition that runs back to Sir Donald Bradman and beyond.

Hussey put this into words most persuasively on his own West Australian soil in the moment of triumph. He was asked about his feelings of satisfaction, coming so late to international cricket, with the suggestion that because of his own circumstances his elation must be that much higher than any of his team-mates. No, he said, no one got into the Australian team on the strength of a few flashes of brilliance. It was the long apprenticeship, the gathering of will over the years, so that when you came into the team you knew precisely what was expected.

Against this Australian backcloth, England's handling of their rare triumph at home was made to seem even more inadequate. In the days that followed the climax at the Oval, England's captain Michael Vaughan hammered on the theme that his team had to stay focused, had to stay - it was his word - honest. The significance of his plea is plain enough now. It seems that he sensed what he couldn't bluntly say, that there were currents in his team of heroes which did not augur so well for any seamless maintenance of a winning edge.

The worry gathered force in the immediate challenge of the Pakistan tour, where home coach Bob Woolmer announced that it would be interesting to see how England reacted to their victory over Australia. Would it put more steel into their game - or would it make them relax? Woolmer was accused of making mischief. No doubt he was. It is what coaches do when they seek to achieve an edge, and they do it with maximum aggression when they have identified a weakness.

Australia read England as though they were an open book before the action started at the Gabba. Time and again Ponting talked about the possibilities of unrest in the England dressing room with the "strange" selections of Giles and Panesar. The captain's hard-nosed team-mate Matthew Hayden worked the theme relentlessly. The Australians latched hard on to the dismaying performance of Steve Harmison at the Gabba; nothing was neglected in the pursuit of an advantage.

They saw a team primed for slaughter and yesterday they completed the job. They not only won an Ashes series. They confirmed a superior way of thinking, of fighting, and sacrificing. And it was here that the real post-mortem had to begin. The rest was relatively minor detail.