December 28, 2006

Action: fourth Test

Were England spineless?

Tim de Lisle
A shell-shocked Andrew Flintoff after the thrashing, Australia v England, 4th Test, Melbourne, December 28, 2006
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There’s an adjective we’ll be seeing a lot of in the next day or two: spineless. It’s the one the media traditionally bring out for England collapses. But is it justified?

Yes and no. The word has two distinct senses, and the one that strikes us first is synonymous with gutless. Were England lacking courage today as they slumped towards 4-0? I don’t think so. The batsmen weren’t backing away to square leg, or trying to get out. Most of them got stuck in: five of the top seven faced 30 balls or more, just as all of the top six had in the first innings. Most of their opponents didn’t do that.

To be a Test cricketer for any country takes courage: not many of us would fancy facing 90mph bouncers. It also takes commitment. You have to put in years of practice, and do more hanging around than in any line of work outside film-making and war. So accusations of spinelessness, like accusations of racism, should be made very sparingly. Most of these England players have shown grit at other times – the Ashes 2005, Mumbai 2006, Old Trafford 2006. Lily-livered they are not.

The team, however, has been spineless in the other sense of lacking a spine. Test teams need their vertebrae – a solid opening pair, at least one other top batsman, a counter-attacking six and seven, a strong captain, a settled wicketkeeper, and an exacting new-ball pair. Others may join this core according to their gifts and personality – Australia’s backbone obviously incorporates a rather portly legspinner – but these six components are just about essential in most conditions. And one way or another, England have mislaid them.

As openers, Cook and Strauss have been less than the sum of their parts. They keep getting through the first 10 overs, then succumbing, through a mixture of a technical flaws (Cook pushes across the line of standard slanting deliveries), a run of rough umpiring decisions (and yes, Damien Martyn certainly suffered something similar in 2005), plus both men’s inability to find a higher gear. If it was bad luck that England lost Vaughan and Trescothick, it was bad judgment that they didn’t ship in some experience to replace them. The cameo Justin Langer played in Melbourne, kick-starting Australia’s reply, would have been inconceivable from England’s openers.

At least they have the other top batsman, even if he seems at odds with the present regime. It was uncompromising individualism that took Kevin Pietersen to England, so they can hardly be surprised if he shows a bit too much of it now. And the management have done plenty of things that might leave a good player feeling exasperated.

Several of the components come down to Andrew Flintoff’s role. He hasn’t been a strong captain: he relies too much on gut instinct, as he calls it, and not enough on his considerable brain. Not only has he lost his scriptwriter, he doesn’t seem to be directing the movie.

He has barely been up to counter-attacking at six, and Geraint Jones had hardly anything to offer at seven. Bad management in both cases: Flintoff’s batting often takes a lot of de-rusting, and Jones should never have been recalled without finding his form first. Once Steve Harmison went doolally, Flintoff became Matthew Hoggard’s new-ball partner, which was manful of him, but put further strain on his ankle. The case for resting him grows.

So England’s spine is creaking badly. But today’s sad procession was more about good bowling than bad batting. The ball Stuart Clark bowled to Pietersen, a killer nip-backer, was so well timed, it was like a job application for leader of the pack.

England’s failing, as on the last day at Adelaide, was meekness. They hit only 17 fours in the match, in 140 overs. That was partly down to the slow pitch and outfield, and partly to the bowlers’ formidable accuracy, which offered no respite. But the batsmen did little to bother them. Matthew Hayden advanced out of his crease; several England players retreated into theirs. They helped dig their own graves.

But we do need to bear in mind how Australia’s middle order did in this game. I’ll have to Ask Steven if they have ever won a game before with only 18 runs from numbers three, four and five. This was a match won not just by some fiercely disciplined bowling, but by one outstanding partnership, outside of which Australia made 140 for nine. Shane Warne was the man of the moment, but naming him man of the match, when he took only two top-order wickets, was an insult to two musclebound Queenslanders.

Tim de Lisle is the editor of Intelligent Life magazine and a former editor of Wisden

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Posted by Odie on (January 1, 2007, 2:51 GMT)

"Like most sportswriters, I don't set out to be either positive or negative. I try to find a line or a theme that is distinctive, accurate and entertaining."

Tim, Tim, Tim!

I also remember your classic Hubris v Nemesis article and can quite confidently assure you that you are entirely entertaining...but "distinctive" and "accurate"?

Perhaps you should put BOTH of your hands back onto your keyboard immediately as one of them appears to have wandered and is now doing something it should not be doing...

Posted by Ghalib Imtiyaz Ahmad on (December 30, 2006, 4:44 GMT)

England's Ashes plans were dealt a huge blow with Trescothik being out of the batting order. Cook is not an ideal opener and he is suited to no.3 and he and Bell has been exposed to the new ball far too early and Flintoff, Jones, Mahmood also failed to make an impression with the bat. Ultimately it was their batting failure coupled with few bad umpiring decisions that did cost them few test matches.

Posted by buffalos on (December 30, 2006, 3:48 GMT)

Thanks for the explaination Tim! I had never seen a score explained in this manner before I appear to have jumped the gun.

Posted by Saleh Hakeem on (December 30, 2006, 1:53 GMT)

I feel that the team looked underprepared and disorganised. We missed tres and vaughan being able to bully the aussie bowlers something bell,cook and colly cant really do consisitently.

Cook will get better as will Bell. Colly doesnt have the talent to improve his game and in my opinion lose his place first.

Strauss is a good player who should be skipperof the side. Flintoff does not know how to handle his spinner and I agree let the aussies of the hook with easy singles.

Players need to be identified according to talent as opposed to temperemant and then moulded thereon.

Posted by Rext on (December 30, 2006, 0:42 GMT)

Form should always be analysed with the head, not the heart! England were a promising young team in 2005 playing with their ball in the murky autumn English light against an underprepared, complacent and overconfident Australian side that then lost the First Test MOM effectively for the series and even in disarray ultimately lost that series by two runs. A promising young boxer meets an overweight, underprepared and complacent Mohammed Ali and defeats him for the title by a point. In his self deceptive jubilation he overlooks one vital fact. Ali is entitled to a rematch!! Not for anything would I wish to be that boxer!! First round knockout would be most experts prediction! Any clear minded assessment of the world rankings and achievements of players on both sides clearly shows the Australians to be Ali and demonstrates the gap in class between the two sides. Team management and Flintoff's positivity as a batsman and bowler and his negativity as a captain are excuses not reasons. And if English supporters so comprehensively misread the result in 2005, most Australian supporters along with management and the team did not!! Don't blame your team now that you have egg on your faces!!

Posted by JasonK on (December 29, 2006, 23:19 GMT)

You're alright Tim, you keep it entertaining. You make some salient points and you stick up for your homeland.

Posted by Usman on (December 29, 2006, 20:28 GMT)

It is difficult to accept that Flintof and his yomen of England have been hammered so badly. But lets not forget that it is Australia they are trying to compete against. The media made 2005 ashes into something it just wasn't. England 'just' won the ashes last time round. They are not half the side australia is. 4-0 is not that bad, after all they were there to deliver the ashes back.

Posted by Matt Burrows on (December 29, 2006, 18:46 GMT)

And now John Buchanan is dancing on English graves by asking for some good ol' fair dinkum "Compete" in Sydney. Any hard-earned Pommie respect from 2005 is unequivocally down the drain as Oz plays spin to perfection once again.

Posted by Tim de Lisle on (December 29, 2006, 17:03 GMT)

Thanks for the comments everyone - some excellent points. I'm just popping up to respond to Buffalos, who queried my maths.

I said that outside the Hayden-Symonds partnership, Australia made 140 for nine. Well, the partnership was 279, and the total was 419, so correct me again if I'm wrong, but I make the difference 140. And it's for nine because that's how many wickets fell outside that partnership. The first five wickets raised 84 and the last four 56. I wasn't calling this a failure – it proved to be more than enough. I was just using it to put England's low scores in context: some batsmen who are mostly better players than them, in mostly better form, facing mainly worse bowling, made equally few runs.

The pattern of the match was strikingly uniform, apart from that one epic stand. This doesn't mean we can ignore it, as you rightly say, but it does offer some mitigation for the batsmen who flopped.

Nor was I 'just trying to pull some positives out for England'. If so, I wouldn't have said they batted meekly, had the wrong captain, showed bad judgment on a string of selection issues, and ended up without much of a backbone. Like most sportswriters, I don't set out to be either positive or negative. I try to find a line or a theme that is distinctive, accurate and entertaining. Whether I succeed is, of course, for you to decide.

Posted by Tom Flowers on (December 29, 2006, 16:06 GMT)

England have the makings of a fine team, however Flintoff can't be captain. It takes away from his batting and alf the reason he is in the team is because he is supposedly a test number 6 (is he the next Botham - definately not). Strauss should be captain. If you have a side at 5-84 and you bring your spinner on, you should attack. Yopu cant give easy singles down the ground, it lets the battsmen get off the mark and get settles. Also look how often Symonds played the hook shot (not once) yet there were still 2 men back for it every ball he faced and this let him tuck balls around the corner for 1s and 2s and get his score sheet moving. If you have a team on the ropes you need to go in for the kill, attacking fields and attacking bowling, England lacked both. As players they have potential and talent (cook is a very good player and bell would be if he could get past his ego) hwoever as a team they are spineless, they don't play for each other (peitersen giving the tail the strike when he should have taken it) and they don't have leadership. An Australian team will never accept defeat and say "oh well we were beaten y the best in the world" When they lost last ashes series they went back to training and fixed what was wrong. Australia choses to win and England choses to try their best (which still isnt better thatn 200 in an innings). Cricket is attitude, if you think you will win and you are any goo more oftent than not you will win, if you are any good and are just trying to compete you will never get anywhere (especially against Austalia). England need a belief in themselves that the can win and more than that, that they will win. Strauss can give them this, take the captaincy away from Freddy and just let him play cricket and stop worrying about hjow porrly the rest of the team is doing. He is a wonderfully talented cricketer but he isn't a thinker, he just needs to play, Strauss to captain and then Flintoff will win games for England. (Tim please post this article - 7th time lucky....)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tim de Lisle
Tim de Lisle is a former editor of Wisden. He fell in love with newspapers at the age of seven and with cricket at the age of 10. He started in journalism at 16, reviewing records for the London Australian Magazine, before reading classics at Oxford and writing for Smash Hits, Harpers & Queen and the Observer. He has been a feature writer on the Daily Telegraph, arts editor of the Times and the Independent on Sunday, and editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly, where he won an Editor of the Year award. Since 1999, Tim has been the rock critic of the Mail on Sunday. He is deputy editor of Intelligent Life, the new general-interest magazine from the Economist. He writes for the Guardian and makes frequent appearances as a cricket pundit on the BBC and Sky News.

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