Kings of collapse soft in the head

England's horrendous batting displays are born of inflexible planning and poor application
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The Independent Online

Among the wreckage of England's batting in Australia many alarming statistics are to be found. But none is quite as staggering as the number of times English batsmen reached double figures. The top six have so far made 90 visits to the crease on this tour, and I dare you to guess the number of times they have posted 10 or more runs. Well done if you come within 15 of the actual figure.

Considering what has taken place it is hard to believe the answer is 67. Or, to put it another way; on 75 per cent of the occasions they have batted, the top-order players have got a start. If Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, had been offered that at the start of the Ashes he would have been a happy man.

It is when you begin to delve deeper and work out the number of occasions England's batsmen have passed 30 (28 per cent), 50 (16 per cent) and 100 (three per cent) that the shortcomings become apparent. The figures are even more alarming when you realise that Kevin Pietersen posted five of the 14 50-plus scores - and he went home injured two weeks ago.

Batsmen state that the first 10 runs are the hardest, so why have England's finest been so incapable of turning encouraging starts into telling contributions? Fragile techniques being exposed by brilliant bowling and planning, or a mental problem?

Every batsman has technical flaws, even Brian Lara. Before he is settled he jumps across the crease against fast bowling in an uncontrolled reaction. He takes his eye off well-directed bouncers and gets out early, too. In 26 per cent of his international innings he has been dismissed for fewer than 10. But when he gets in, boy does he make it count.

There can be no doubt that Ricky Ponting's bowlers have exploited England's faults superbly. John Buchanan, Australia's coach, knows Andrew Strauss's options are limited if a bowler bowls full and straight, keeping the ball away from his favourite cut shot. Result: Strauss has looked for runs in areas where he is vulnerable.

Buchanan is also aware that Alastair Cook plants his right foot when playing forward and pushes at balls that he could leave, and that Ian Bell's indecisive footwork makes him vulnerable to slip catches and lbws at the start of an innings. And that Paul Collingwood has no pick-up, a deficiency that restricts his off-side play, and that Andrew Flintoff does not move his feet against fast bowling.

Technique is essential, it has to be, but the most important parts of a batsman's body are his heart and mind. And here England have let themselves down. Strauss, Cook, Bell, Collingwood, Flintoff and Ed Joyce have regularly fallen to soft and unfathomable shots.

The manner of their downfalls suggests they had decided the way they were going to bat before taking guard - a naïve and flawed approach. Batsmen are loath to admit it, but it is bowlers who dictate what takes place out on the pitch. They determine whether a batsman plays forward or back, on the off- or leg-side. Batsmen may not like it, but the truth has to be respected.

It is the reason why batsmen have to be tough mentally. They must be willing to take painful blows and to work hard for their runs in difficult circumstances. Good batsmen battle it out even when they are in awful touch. They hate losing their wicket, taking it as a personal affront.

England's top six have tried to treat Australia's bowlers as they did in 2005, when they rattled along at four runs an over. But, with the exception of Kevin Pietersen - who is a freak - they have failed consistently and abjectly. And they continue to flop because this attack is far superior to 2005. Yet still they refuse to modify their gameplans.

It is an attitude that explains why so many perish between 10 and 30. England's batsmen have concentrated hard at the start of their innings. They have watched the ball, shown respect to the bowlers and batted as though they wanted to post a big score.

But all that has been ditched once they have felt they are in. The desire to dominate kicks in and expansive strokes are tried. Against the quality of Glenn McGrath, Stuart Clark and Shane Warne, such liberties are fatal.

England's openers have been the most culpable. In the Test series, Strauss and Cook took their side past 20 on eight occasions but failed to register one 50 partnership - for the first time in Ashes history in Australia.

This England set-up are far more team-orientated and professional than in the Nineties, when a more selfish existence ruled. But the modern regime seems to be breeding a softer cricketer. England will score runs against West Indies and India this coming summer, but if a few members of the current team had shown the survival instincts and bloody-mindedness of Michael Atherton, Nasser Hussain, Graham Thorpe or Alec Stewart (or even Pietersen, which may explain why he does not seem quite to fit in), they might not have fallen into such a deep and unpleasant hole.

Total Failure: England's scores in Australia

Prime Minister's XI, 10 Nov: Total 181; 1st wkt 3; fall of 5th wkt 123.

New South Wales, 12-14 Nov: Total 349; 1st wkt 9; fall of 5th wkt 282.

South Australia, 17-19 Nov: Total 415; 1st wkt 5; fall of 5th wkt 282.

First Test, 23-27 Nov; Totals 157 & 370; 1st wkts 28 & 29; fall of 5th wkt 79 & 271.

Second Test, 1-5 Dec: Totals 551-6 dec & 129; 1st wkt 32 & 31; fall of 5th wkt 489 & 77.

Western Australia, 9-10 Dec: Total 356-5; 1st wkt 183; fall of 5th wkt 320.

Third Test, 13-18 Dec: Totals 215 & 350; 1st wkt 36 & 0; fall of 5th wkt 107 & 261.

Fourth Test, 26-28 Dec: Totals 159 & 161; 1st wkt 23 & 41; fall of 5th wkt 122 & 90.

Fifth Test, 2-5 Jan: Totals 291 & 147; 1st wkt 45 & 5; fall of 5th wkt 245 & 113.

One-day international v Aus, 12 Jan: Total 242-8; 1st wkt 20; fall of 5th wkt 206.

ODI v NZ, 16 Jan: Total 206-7; 1st wkt 39; fall of 5th wkt 138.

ODI v Aus, 19 Jan: Total 155; 1st wkt 52; fall of 5th wkt 71.

ODI v NZ, 23 Jan: Total 120; 1st wkt 21; fall of 5th wkt 92.

ODI v Aus, 26 Jan: Total 110; 1st wkt 14; fall of 5th wkt 81.