Never mind the Ashes, where is England's fire?

The Ashes Series: The difference between the teams was not just an imbalance in talent, but in sheer intensity and spirit
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The Independent Online

That Andrew Caddick gave up the Ashes with a no-ball, after a brief but mesmerisingly beautiful exhibition of flawless batting from Damien Martyn and Mark Waugh, was a parable not from the cricket bible Wisden but the real thing. Judgement had come down written on large stones, all of which had been used to batter the head of English cricket.

England, as currently constituted, had no place in the temple of the game represented by the historic rivalry and were duly thrown out.

Their challenge to a superbly gifted, and spirited, Australian team was always a fiction and the concern now must not be the scale of defeat, which has been as profound as anyone could have predicted even as Steve Waugh's tourists were dismantling England's confidence limb by limb in a catastrophically hapless one-day campaign, but the meaning of it.

What it means is that we no longer have an authentic rivalry with our oldest cricket enemy. We have an open-ended source of rebuke, a recurring statement of inferiority ­ it stretches over seven series of English futility now ­ that will never be silenced by the ramshackled, crisis-hopping parody of a system which is geared not for the radical transformation required but the preservation of individual roles within the game.

In a sporting culture more atuned to the realities of world-class competition David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, would have already been asked to submit his resignation. Not because Graveney is personally responsible for the decline of England's position in competition with Australian ­ that is a much longer story ­ but simply because his selection policy this summer has been little more than a series of speculative lunges crowned by the farcical confusion which accompanied the choosing of the latest team on the eve of the potentially decisive third Test.

Usman Afzaal was brought in as "street-fighter" for the Tests because the Australians in the one-day games had "worked out" Owais Shah, a player previously nominated for his talent and his competitive character ­ some talent, some character if it was judged too fragile to survive fleeting individual failure in a huge collective disaster, and what was the depth of that original assessment, and the calculation that Afzaal would deal with the pressures of the first Test of an Ashes series? At Edgbaston he resembled a plucky, hyperactive rabbit caught in the headlights. Dominic Cork and Craig White were asked to deliver again that which had plainly gone missing.

After Saturday's debacle, during which White was not asked to bowl, an Australian journalist could only shake his head when he was told by England coach Duncan Fletcher that Robert Croft had been chosen on the strength of his consistent record against Australia rather than the match-winning break-out of Phil Tufnell in what now seems like another lifetime, and his potential batting contribution. Here, Croft scored three runs and bowled three overs, and though he claimed the currently devalued wicket of Ricky Ponting his mere presence at this point was still another strain on logic.

But these are the details of what amounts to a collapse of a way of sporting life. Judged on a wider sweep, the problem of English cricket remains pretty much that of football until the Football Association had the nerve to admit it needed outside help and appointed the sophisticated, consummate professional Sven Goran Eriksson. Cricket, to be fair, has edged in that direction with the appointment of the Australian Rod Marsh as head of the new academy, the need for which was dramatically confirmed here when, at last, some of Alex Tudor's vast potential was drawn out. English football, like English cricket now, was always too ready to draw a veil over the direst of failure. Almost unbelievably, when you consider the workaday reactions of the rest of the sporting world, Glenn Hoddle and Kevin Keegan were allowed to continue as national coaches even after the most grotesque of failures in, respectively, the World Cup and the European Championship.

Such official reactions would have drawn only outright mirth in places like Italy ­ and, most pertinently for English cricket, in Australia.

Within an hour of this latest crushing defeat, the talk in the Nottingham pavilion was of the need for new faces. But which faces, and what kind of preparation for their arrival in the big-time? What psychology will be applied? What real grooming has gone on?

Michael Atherton, who long after it must have seemed like an old if still vivid nightmare, was asked to carry the burden of the captaincy again, was almost coy on Saturday afternoon when asked if this latest and most devastating of Ashes defeats had made another, and perhaps conclusive statement, about the failure of English cricket to properly compete with Australia, had indeed illuminated not a decline in playing standards but the collapse of an entire sporting culture. "It's a deep question," he said guardedly, "and I have expressed myself on this before." When he did, suggesting that county cricket was the relic of another age, he was of course pursued by a backwoods lynch mob, who called him an ingrate snarling at the hand which had fed him. He was of course as right then as he would be today, despite the cosmetic approach of turning the county competition into two divisions. Is it just a coincidence that the main title contenders, Yorkshire and Somerset, are both hugely buoyed by Australians, Yorkshire by the prodigious batting of Darren Lehmann and Somerset the captaincy of Jamie Cox?

There is another truth, though, and it was plainly evident at Nottingham this last weekend. The difference between England and Australia this summer has not been just about competitive standards in the respective domestic cricket, and an imbalance of talent, but the sheer spirit and intensity of the winners.

England's coach Fletcher forlornly confirmed the point when asked to name the most striking attribute of his team's conquerors. Australia, he said, were a fine team, possibly the greatest he had ever seen, full of talent and experience and success, but the thing that struck him most was their enthusiasm, their togetherness, their absolute refusal to become jaded by the glut of their triumphs. He noted the mood of their arrival at the grounds, early and in a buzz of anticipation for the coming action. It was, he suggested, the light tread of pure winners.

Also of a team who like and respect each other. Shane Warne had earlier given an impressive example of this with his insistence that, while he had taken the wickets, Jason Gillespie had done quite as much to undermine England with the relentless hostility and control of his bowling. Vice-captain Adam Gilchrist, who with the injury shadow over the magisterial Waugh may have to take control of the drive for a historic whitewash on English soil, expanded the sense of unity when he announced his relief that there was no Ashes presentation while his captain was having scans in the local hospital. "That would have been terrible, he has been such a leader, such a captain," said Gilchrist. "As it is, I expect to give him a hug and a beer when he comes back ­ and before he bores us to tears by putting on a John Williamson CD."

Williamson is an Australian folk singer, a Willie Nelson with attitude, much loved by Waugh. Williamson is inflicted on the Australian players relentlessly, and for some of them the anthem "True Blue" is the torment of their lives. But of course they endure it. If the music is good enough for the captain, it is surely good enough for the troops. A former England coach, David Lloyd, once thought the refrain of Jerusalem would work the same magic in his dressing room. Maybe one day it will. In another life ­ and a new, and workable system of English cricket.