Action: fourth Test December 28, 2006

Were England spineless?

There's an adjective we'll be seeing a lot of in the next day or two: spineless

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