As England dishevelled cricketers return home this week, heads bowed, to empty scenes at Heathrow airport, the inquest into quite what went so catastrophically wrong can begin.
For England, the last few months have lurched from disaster to embarrassment and lately, in the case of their Faulkner-inspired defeat in the 2nd ODI, pitiful farce. Egos have been shattered, players have thrown in the towel, some with more than a degree of permanency, and now the head coach has gone as well. It hasn’t so much been a chastening defeat as the end of an era.
The interesting thing is that, while it superficially seems to have been a sudden decline, with the benefit of hindsight the writing has been on the wall for some time. Much as Manchester United have recently shown in the Premiership, a declining great team can still win while not maintaining their previous standards, however once the wheels fall off, they fall off spectacularly. Chinks start to appear in the armour, but it takes the aura of invincibility to slip before the cracks become canyons.
For the Red Devils, this crossing of the Rubicon came with the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, while in the more mental game of cricket, the England team’s problems stem from the bowling attack’s eventual disability to bail out our batsmen.
Despite series victories against New Zealand and the impressive feat of winning in India, England have not really looked a cohesive batting unit for some time. Indeed in England’s last 25 test matches, they have only passed 400 first innings runs (the minimum ambition in the vast majority of games) 5 times. By means of comparison, that is the same as the number of times they have been dismissed for an abject sub-200 score.
During the majority of that time, the fearsome bowling attack of Anderson, Swann, Broad and Finn/Bresnan has been enough to dig them out of trouble. This winter however, Swann and Bresnan (not to mention Tremlett) came back insufficiently from injury, Anderson had one of those series that he has been occasionally prone to while away from favourable home conditions and Finn forgot how to bowl completely, his confidence destroyed by coaches’ insistence on improving his action.
Swann, in particular had encountered a dramatic fall from grace. So much of England’s past success had come from the pressure his persistent brilliance had created from one end, while the seamers stayed rested and angry from the other. For spinners though, aura is everything. Once Swann’s elbow problems had robbed him of the extra drift and turn that used to trouble many of the world’s best, he was human. The signs were there over the summer, when (on pitches tailored for him) he failed to consistently outbowl Nathan Lyon.
At the Gabba, Warner and co set about about him with gay abandon. It was a totally premeditated plan, but one that Swann was powerless to avert. With their spinner hit out the attack, Cook could do nothing but bowl the quicks into the ground in wilting 40 degree heat. With little sideways movement and even less scoreboard pressure from their batsmen to assist them, they were lambs to the slaughter.
The limited overs matches that followed were a bloodbath, as shattered husks of England cricketers folded under the tidal wave of green and gold morale and aggression. The tour ended in appropriate fashion on Sunday when Jade Dernbach, a player who is unimaginably far from international quality, calamatously ran himself out. One sensed that if the England football team endured a tournament this ghastly, the number of effigies ablaze across the country would probably be visible from space. But fortunately this is cricket, bridges can be rebuilt, lessons learned. Here are our pointers:
1. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater
Firstly, it is of paramount importance that England don’t overreact. Yes, this was awful. Yes, things need to change. Yes, senior players have retired. But for these reasons, the last thing we should do is rid ourselves of the players who made the team great in the first place. For example, Matt Prior should definitely return to the side for the summer tests, with a long-term plan of phasing in the dynamic Jos Buttler as his replacement. Jonny Bairstow is not, I’m afraid, a good enough batsman for international cricket, nor has he got Prior’s impeccable judgement on DRS decisions. Prior was England’s cricketer of the year 12 months ago and at just 31, discarding him in this way would be lunacy. Form is, one hopes, temporary.
2. Get the right coach
Now, I don’t have the level of knowledge to suggest who that might be, but it is imperative that the ECB find someone to bring the right mentality to the side. One of the more unpleasant aspects of the England team, through the good years, was that you always got the impression that we weren’t very good winners. A nasty seam of arrogance of coarsed through the “lads club” mentality of the bowling attack in particular. As Simon Barnes recently pointed out in another superb Times article, when bullies get bullied, they don’t cope with it well. Regaining some humility, while keeping an element of aggression (not least in our batting mentality), is one of the key jobs for any incoming coach.
3. Big players need to stand up
Messrs Cook, Pietersen, Anderson, Bell, etc. That means you.
4. Balancing the side
A positive in this regard comes in the form of Ben Stokes, who was a rare bright spot in the ocean of negatives (the continued emergence of Stuart Broad probably being the other). While it would be wrong to pile too much pressure on a young man, test quality all-rounders are a rare and valuable asset. Stokes is good enough, in due course, to bat at 6 and provide a 5th bowling option. We would be foolish to lump him with any more responsibility than that currently though. While he took wickets through hard graft down under, he would be insufficient in a 4-man attack. Anderson and Broad should be backed up by two specialist bowlers, of which one would ideally be able to hold a bat at number 9. That way the side would have the balance between runscoring potential and the depth of bowling required to keep fire in the bellies of the quicks (especially important since we no longer have a world-class spin option).
Pick players who are at their peak
The old adage that form is temporary while class is permanent still holds a degree of truth in cricket. However, as England found out with Chris Tremlett, class is not quite as permanent as they would like it to me. While Tremlett and a woefully out-of-sorts Stephen Finn fired pies down the nets in Australia, Graham Onions (who took 70 1st division wickets at an average of 18 last summer) was tucking into some turkey with his family. He might not have the “x-factor” that the taller men possessed at their most fearsome, but unlike them he was actually somewhere in the remote vicinity of his best form. There is an argument to send the likes of Joe Root back to county for a bit, with in-form one day man Eoin Morgan a decent shout to take his place. While Morgan struggled to establish himself in the side a few years ago, he wasn’t a total disaster (as two centuries would attest) and has grown in stature since.
Horses for courses
While this is something that England have got better at since the separation of powers saw Ashley Giles take over one-day duties, there is still a feeling that we send inappropriate players out in some of the shorter forms of the game. Watching Joe Root scratch around for a 21-ball innings of 11 when the required run rate was over 2-a-ball was a case in point. Despite getting pasted in the ODI series, I actually thought we had a decent balance to that side, with Ravi Bopara and Ben Stokes providing a nice combination of aggressive batting and bowling options. Better death bowling and more faith in James Tredwell would have seen a better result in that series. Oh, and never select Jade Dernbach ever again.
Where from here?
All of which begs the question of where we go from here. On 12th June Sri Lanka come to Lord’s in the first test match of the summer. In the absence of any better options, Cook should continue as captain, however he must learn to be more dynamic. From where I’m sitting, there are 7 definite selections in the side: Cook, Bell, Pietersen, Stokes, Prior, Broad and Anderson. In an ideal world, this leaves places in the side for: an opener, a middle-order batsman, a fast bowler and a spinner.
Opener: Carberry did alright in Australia, and it would be no surprise if he kept his place, but with an eye on the future, I’d rather that the selectors either persisted with Joe Root there, or maybe took a look at Middlesex’s Sam Robson, a newly patriated Austrialian (albeit with an English mother – but don’t believe that the “plastic Brit” crowd will buy that) who top-scored in last season’s county championship. At just 24, he has the potential to be around for some time.
Middle-order batsman: Assuming the selectors decide to promote or drop Root, neither of which is by any means a certainty, I think a strong case could be made for giving the creative and attacking Eoin Morgan another chance. He has sound technique, handled Mitchell Johnson exceptionally in the ODIs and is one of the best players of spin we have. Gary Ballance is presumably still in the mix, despite a mixed debut.
Paceman: Until Finn rediscovers his mojo, or Bresnan rediscovers his lost yard of pace, I don’t think you can look past Graham Onions.
Spinner: The trickiest of all the dilemmas that the selectors face is unearthing the next great England spinner. Scott Borthwick looked OK in almost laughably difficult circumstances in Sydney and can bat. However his county record implies strongly that he is never going to be a match-winner. Monty Panesar is capable, but has had a difficult few years and is the wrong side of 30 while James Tredwell is an economical one-day man who won’t trouble test batsmen. If England are serious about spin as a weapon rather than an obstacle, then at risk of derision, I would strongly recommend that Simon Kerrigan is given another chance. Kerrigan has been sensational over the last few seasons for a young Lancashire team and, having pulled in innings-figures such as 5/7 and 9/51 over recent years, he is the one English twirler who can actually claim to be a match-winner. He might have got an inexplicable and horrible case of the yips on debut. He might not have the temperament or bottle for test cricket. He certainly has the talent. The only way the selectors will find out is by playing him.
If England go with Bresnan over Onions, I’d like to see Kerrigan play. If they go with the Durham man, then it makes sense for Borthwick to bolster the batting. It will be intriguing to see what path they take and how quickly the team as a whole can rebuild.
By Harry Harland