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December 18, 2006
In the end, resistance was futile. England's 463-day Ashes reign, the shortest in history, came to an end just two balls into the second session of the 15th day of this contest. In truth, it was over long before it had begun. As Ricky Ponting admitted in the immediate aftermath of victory, the pain of Australia's defeat in 2005 was all the spur they needed to overpower their opponents at the earliest opportunity.
England showed some fight in today's brief encounter. While Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen were still in harness, thumping England ever closer to their mammoth target of 557, it seemed there was still an outside possibility of an astounding turnaround. But that's the problem. Such notions were nothing more than an illusion, brought about by the memories of last summer's miracles. Even at the eleventh hour, England were still clinging to dreams. Australia, on the other hand, were dealing only in hard and fast reality.
It's all been a bit of a dreamy daze for England. Their nightmare on Vulture Street in the first Test, their agonised paralysis on the final day at Adelaide, Adam Gilchrist's demolition job in Saturday's pivotal session at the WACA. At every step of the way, England have resembled the seven dwarves whistling their way to work. Every now and again they've put in some very good work too, but they've been deluding themselves if they think their efforts could unsettle opponents so hell-bent on victory.
And that, in a nutshell, has been their failing throughout a hit-and-miss year. It was England's dream that last year's Ashes triumph would mark the start of a glorious ascent to the summit of world cricket. In actual fact, the team was a spent force even as they embarked on their legendary celebrations at The Oval last summer. The sheer effort of reaching that glorious high had taken its toll on a body of men who, with the exception of the insatiable Pietersen, had reached the end of a long and eventful road.
Those who came late to the Ashes party forget how much had been achieved by Michael Vaughan's band of brothers. If 2005 was special then 2004 was, statistically, an even greater year, encompassing as it did wins in the Caribbean and South Africa, not to mention seven straight triumphs in the English summer, en route to six series wins in a row. Such great efforts were visibly draining - physically, on men such as Vaughan, Simon Jones, Ashley Giles and Andrew Flintoff himself; and mentally, in the sad case of Marcus Trescothick and, if we are being honest, Geraint Jones as well.
All of which increases the folly of England's selection this winter. After an erratic 12 months, England defeated Pakistan by two Tests and a forfeit, with a four-man bowling attack of Steve Harmison, Matthew Hoggard, Sajid Mahmood and Monty Panesar. The combination had its flaws for sure, but it had momentum and, more importantly, it was looking forwards, not back. With Flintoff waiting in the wings to add an extra line of attack, who knows what might have happened on that first day at the Gabba? A winning mentality is, after all, a rather critical component to success, as Australia themselves have demonstrated over the past 15 days of competition.
Australia had nine Test wins in a row coming into this series; England had five wins, four losses, four draws - which is precisely neither here nor there. At Lord's back in May, they allowed Sri Lanka to score 537 for 9 in the follow-on to draw an undrawable Test - ideal preparation for losing the unloseable Test at Adelaide last week. The intensity has been absent throughout, not least in one-day cricket - a mode of the game that England thought was irrelevant until they lost that second Test in a typical limited-overs scramble.
Flintoff refused to discuss changes for the final two Tests, but changes are inevitable. The first man for the chop has to be Geraint Jones, who has managed just 369 runs in the 14 Tests since the last Ashes, at an average of 16.77. His presence has been a gift for Australia, who have mocked his every step in this series and gave him the ultimate send-off today with the most desperate duck of his career.
England do have a bright future. Their batsmen, with the exception of Flintoff and the luckless Andrew Strauss, have all prospered, and they are all aged 30 or less. But it is their bright past that has been too prominent on this tour. The impression throughout has been of a side whose management doesn't trust the materials at his disposal. Duncan Fletcher has given much to England in his seven years at the helm. But he's let his charges down on this occasion. He, like everyone else involved in England's campaign, has spent a little too long in dreamland.
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