December 12, 2013

England need to embrace being dull

When they were successful, they were called conservative and boring. That's better than losing, isn't it?

Cook and Pietersen have underperformed in this series, but they are the ones who have scored runs off this Australian attack in the past © AFP

Remember when England arrived in Australia to suggestions they were boring? Worthy, relatively successful, but just a little bit dull. Sort of like a Mumford & Sons of Test cricket.

Fast forward a few weeks, past a couple of humiliating defeats in Brisbane and Adelaide, and the accusations have changed up a gear. England are now being branded as useless, brainless, over the hill and running scared. You'd take being called dull over any of that. At a pinch you'd even put up with the Mumford & Sons comparison.

In reality, England aren't quite as dull as they are being made out to be. They simply play to their strengths and a fairly straightforward game plan. A four-man attack, drilled to apply pressure by not giving away cheap runs, backed by good catchers and fields set to deny the opposition their favourite scoring areas. Seven front-line batsmen; a top three who can wear down bowlers and play long innings; Pietersen, Bell and Prior to come in later and play a more expansive game. It's not rocket science. It's not particularly sexy. But in the past it has worked.

Trouble is, as with any game plan, take out a few key elements - your metronomic No. 3 loses form, your underrated first-change seamer gets injured - and things start to go wrong. And when things start to go wrong on tour they can quickly spiral out of control.

In this case they have spiralled into two of the more abject England Test performances in recent memory. Catches have been dropped, run-out opportunities missed, bowling rendered impotent on pitches that Australia have exploited to take 20 wickets, batting blown away by a cricketer taking great pleasure in ramming the ridicule of English supporters down the throats of English batsmen.

On the last Ashes tour, England had seemed like they were batting on cruise control. Arm out of the window, radio on, no worries mate, we'll get these runs at our own pace. This time round, against Australia's resurgent pace attack, England have found every gear but the right one. Either letting the game drift by as they try to duck out of the way of the coming onslaught, or overcompensating by providing catching practice in the outer. Collectively, they simply haven't played the short ball well enough.

This isn't the first time England's batting has been in crisis since Flower has been coach. At the start of 2012 he presided over a 3-0 series thrashing by Pakistan in the UAE. No one scored a century. No one looked like they could. Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman ripped the ball past the edge of English bats time and again. Whenever England faced them it felt like you were watching a cop clinging to the bonnet of a speeding getaway car.

England couldn't play spin. Everyone knew it. Everyone was saying it. And it wasn't until a tour of India 20 months later that England were able to lay that ghost to rest with back-to-back Test wins.

This time they don't have 20 months to sort out technique and confidence. England are five days away from another defeat that would mean Australia regaining the Ashes. There's no time to call up reinforcements. Little point, anyway. You could make the case that Nick Compton and James Taylor were discarded from the England set-up too quickly, or that Gary Ballance is worthy of a chance. But for the most part the best batsmen available to England are the experienced players already in the starting XI. It might be the likes of Cook, Pietersen and Prior who have badly underperformed in this series, but it's those batsmen who have scored runs off this Australian attack in the past.

Realistically it's hard to see how England can get themselves back into this series, but a possible way forward might have been shown by Prior on the final morning in Adelaide, when, before he became yet another English player to perish playing the hook shot, he took on the Australian attack and found the boundary repeatedly by playing the ball along the ground. Of course, cutting down on aerial shots might seem a little conservative, dull even. But you'd rather be called that than useless, brainless and over the hill.

Dave Hawksworth has never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses