Question marks over Gooch after collapse
England's top order seem preoccupied with technical details, which means their batting coach is under scrutiny
England's world turned upside down in an hour after tea at The Oval on Friday.
There had been a couple of collapses earlier in the summer, but after two easy wins against Pakistan, England had begun to think that they only had to turn up here to wrap up the series. A broad sample of commentators and spectators had decided that Pakistan were rubbish. Some rubbish!
The rubbish was England batsmen, all of them, at one time or another. These failures are becoming ende-mic, and questions are already being asked, about the role of Graham Gooch, the batting coach, for instance.
Since the England and Wales Cricket Board have never worried about the size of England's support staff, perhaps they ought to hire a professional expectations manager. Without expert help, England appear to have ignored the fact that their opponents dismissed Australia for 88 at Headingley in July, and drew a two-match series. But after back-to-back wins, England blithely boasted that more of the same at The Oval and Lord's next week would create a record-breaking eight-game winning streak.
Moreover, confident noises were to be heard about England winning the Ashes in Australia this winter. This was the moment at which an expectations manager would have issued a formal caution and moved his gauge from "cocky" at the top of the range to "vulnerable" towards the bottom. It was as if everyone had forgotten the pitiable optimism in England before football's World Cup.
Expectations were already falling sharply at The Oval on Thursday evening when Andrew Strauss fell to a neat outswinger from Mohammad Aamer. Alastair Cook's appalling run of form acted as a brake on optimism, though he was the cause of expectations rising briefly between the start and tea on Friday when Cook (right) rode his luck and rediscovered his form. After tea, the high, grey cloud ceiling and the floodlights helped Aamer's reverse swing. With Saeed Ajmal bowling an unpickable doosra at the other end, the pair administered a sharp dose of realism.
With the loss of six wickets for 27 runs in 15 overs, a dreadful truth was exposed. England's batting is dangerously brittle. The truth has been masked, partly by the fact that of nine Tests played so far this year, four were against Bangladesh. Dropped catches had let them off the hook against Pakistan when they collapsed at Old Trafford and Edgbaston. On Friday the mask was ripped away.
This was a sad litany of batting breakdown. Jonathan Trott, Paul Collingwood and Matt Prior all edged Aamer, thinly to the keeper or thickly to gully. Kevin Pietersen and Eoin Morgan saw their defences pierced by Ajmal's spin. The cumulative impact of these batting failures is illustrated by the averages of the top batsmen in nine Tests this year, including this one. Four of the top batsmen average below 40. Strauss manages a disturbing 33.08. Collingwood (37.00), Morgan (36.57) and Pietersen (36.14) are little better.
Three players average more than 40 – Prior (40.35); Cook (43.75), thanks largely to two hundreds against Bangla-desh. Trott tops the list with 49.86, bolstered by 226 against Bangladesh. These are not records that self-respecting batsmen want to take with them to Australia.
Statistics reveal what has gone wrong but not how to put it right. The only excuse England can offer is Ian Bell's injury. Before he limped away, Bell had averaged 71.50 in nine innings this year. His reformation glitters over the faults of his colleagues. He is a near-certainty to be chosen as soon as he is fit again, which may not be before the squad arrive in Perth in November.
Despite the disappointments, none of the top seven batters are seriously threatened by county cricketers. Neither Ravi Bopara nor Michael Carberry has made a convincing case this summer. When Cook was in the doldrums, a possible solution was to have Trott open and move Pietersen to bat at No 3. After all, he came in first wicket down in the World Twenty20s. But contrasting versions of the game require different skills, and in Tests Pietersen is best suited to bat at No 4 or No 5.
Cook's problems have been with his technique. He worries about the precise position of his backlift and the small movements of his feet. On Friday he attributed his resurrection to ignoring his feet and backlift and just hitting the ball. He gave chances but he scored runs, some of them from fine cover drives. "It paid off," he rejoiced. But his unhappy run has led some experienced commentators to wonder whether the mindset of England's batters is too narrowly concentrated on small technical details. If this is a problem, it focuses attention on the batting coach, Gooch. His dedication is beyond criticism. He is wherever he is needed, and his analysis of what a batsman is doing wrong is acute. However, cricketers who know his work suggest that he is less good at telling a batsman how to put what's wrong right. Gooch's obsession with the game means he does not see any virtue in putting a player's mind rather than his bat straight. He is not the sort of coach who tells an off-form player to cope with his problem by drinking a couple of beers with mates.
When Duncan Fletcher was coach, he was in practice the principal batting coach as well. There is no reason why one man cannot do both jobs. If a change of attitude is required England already have a shrewd batting coach on the staff. His name is Andy Flower.
England's performance at The Oval has damaged the team's morale. So what does an expectations manager do next? For a start, he does not panic. He recalls that the bowlers who have made England's batsmen look feeble have administered precisely the same punishment to the Aussies this summer. The Ashes will be fought for by evenly matched, distinctly ordinary teams. A sensible expectations manager might decide the best position for his gauge is in neutral.
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