December 18, 2013

Oh dear, England

Is there any silver lining in the 3-0 loss? Likely not, but a valiant attempt will be made nevertheless

"If you are going to do something, do it well"
- Falvence Escloffiette, Haute Cuisine Recipes For Cannibals, 1845 (translated by Prof. EH Snutterbuck, published by The British Society For Controversial Food)

If anyone was wondering what is the most effective way to go 3-0 down in a Test series, despite needing to overcome the traditional obstacles of having a team consisting largely of proven high-class five-day run scorers and wicket-takers, then wonder no more. England have given the world an object lesson in this rare craft, which may never have been surpassed and may never be matched again. The solitary crumb of comfort from a rapidly evaporated cake - an auspiciously magnificent maiden Test hundred by Ben Stokes - served only to emphasise the flailing disintegration of his more experienced team-mates, as they slalomed incoherently between caution and risk.

And if anyone had been pondering over how a team that had lost seven of its previous nine Tests, had one batsman averaging over 37 in Tests (compared to six in the opposition ranks), and was gambling on the recall of a strike bowler who had taken 30 wickets at 42 in his previous 11 matches over three years, could rampantly cauterise an opponent against whom it had won two Tests out of the previous 15, then ponder no longer.

Michael Clarke's Australians have given a three-match masterclass in cricketing positivity that would have been impressive coming from their all-conquering predecessors of a decade ago, but has almost defied belief given the state they were in just five months ago, surrendering by 347 runs in a cack-handed cavalcade of incompetence at Lord's. They have played high-risk, high-reward cricket, but with the ability to tighten their game when appropriate. They have played with steel and panache, marrying a passionate fervour with technical brilliance.

In its context, it has been, I think, one of the greatest cricketing achievements of recent years. And, on the downcast English flip side, one of the most striking cricketing failures.

On day three and the first session of day four, the wheels did not merely come off for England. The entire rear axle sheared off from their car, their bonnet flew open, obstructing the view of the driver, who had passed out at the wheel in any case. The wheel-less car then skidded into a lamp post, rebounded via a stray rhinoceros into an extremely spiky field of cactuses, before the crumbling remnants of a once-snazzy vehicle juddered to a halt, teetering on the edge of a cliff. Before, just as it looked like the worst was over, toppling off that cliff, bumping downwards, bursting into flames and splatting into a swamp. Before the escaping occupants of the vehicle swam gingerly to the swampshore, and addressed a press conference with the words: "Yes, that nice afternoon drive through the countryside could definitely have gone better."

Given the number of centuries, wickets and caps in the side, belonging to players who have given English cricket some of its most joyous moments, it instantly rocketed into the A list of Most Crushing Passages Of Play In English Cricket History. A mercifully aggressive second-innings declaration by Clarke curtailed down the cricketing slaughter (and, for the third match in a row, prevented the margins of victory being even greater than they might have been). But the sight of England's two leading wicket-takers of the past 30 years looking over their shoulders and upwards at a rapidly disappearing cricket ball, to the backdrop of thousands of jubilant Australians, could take some time to erase from England's national cricketing conscience.

* One of England's almost innumerable problems has been their failure to find a balance between attack and defence, in the field and, especially, with the bat. Asphyxiated by the constant pressure applied by Australia's miserly five-prong attack, England have managed to score slowly whilst also losing vast stockpiles of wickets with poorly conceived and/or rubbishly executed attacking strokes. In cricketing terms, their batting has been akin to an overweight man going on a strict diet, dedicatedly cutting out all carbohydrates but drinking ten butter-and-pig-fat smoothies a day.

It is not a new phenomenon. They scored 160 for 4 in 80 overs on the first day of the Lord's Test against New Zealand, their slowest start to a Test innings in at least 12 years; 172 for 4 in the first 80 overs of their second innings at Lord's against Australia, when in a position of total and all but irreversible dominance.

A major factor in their inability to break the baggy green shackles has been their striking lack of singles. Australia have averaged a single every 6.9 balls this series; England have taken one run on average every 11.5 balls. (Last summer the figures were: Australia 7.1, England 9.6.) Overall in 2013, in 13 Tests, England have scored a single every 10.4 balls. From 2009 to 2012, the first four years of the Flower Era, they hit a single every 6.4 balls. From 2004 to 2008, it was one every 7.5 balls - so Flower had presided over an increase in English singles, until this year.

I have no idea why England have become so stuck. Perhaps they have just faced teams who bowl with discipline, field with verve, and do not stick fielders on the boundary as soon as a boundary is hit. Perhaps they have become infected with an excess of caution, visible even in some of their enormous recent victories (both with the bat and in their bizarrely scattered fields), and now detrimental in defeat. Who knows. But when a batsman with the craft and touch of Ian Bell is scoring 9 off 62 balls on a good batting pitch, regardless of the match situation, it is an issue that needs to be addressed as a matter of strategic necessity.

* For all their disappointing cricket, England were grievously let down by statistics in Perth. Alastair Cook, after hitting his highest score of the Double-Ashes series, then deliberately bagged a first-ball duck to commence England's fourth-innings chase of 504 - for he knew that no team whose opening batsman has been dismissed with the first ball of a Test innings at the WACA had ever previously lost (from an admittedly small statistical sample of four previous occasions), and that, on the only previous time England had triumphed in Perth, their captain had bagged a second-innings golden duck (Mike Brearley, in 1978-79) - in fact, England had not lost a Test in which their skipper went first ball in the second innings since 1938.

* In the six Tests since their Lord's drubbing, Australia have declared in eight of their 12 innings. They had been bowled out for under 310 in their previous 12 innings against England, and not declared in the Ashes in 11 Tests, since Cardiff 2009.

* Nathan Lyon has the competent but unspectacular figures of 10 for 314 from three Tests. The tenth of those wickets was Graeme Swann, in the endgame at the WACA. The previous nine had all been top-seven batsmen. In the two series combined, 16 of his 19 wickets have been top-six batsmen or Matt Prior; 18 of the 19 have been caught.

* Graeme Swann has had 20 sixes clonked off his bowling in the series so far, breaking Shane Warne's series record of 16, set in 2005 (counting only series since 2001, when ESPNcricinfo started recording such priceless nuggets of ball-by-ball information).

* England have often talked about the importance of "daddy hundreds". Not the obscure 1920s American footballer who played for such distinguished franchises as the San Francisco Sadists, the Boston Bacon Baps, the Cincinnati Archivists, the Nantucket Nincompoops, Miami Strange, and the New York Kidney Stones, but large, match-defining centuries of 150 or more. They have therefore received insufficient praise for ruthlessly preventing Australia turning their hundreds into "daddies". Only Clarke's Adelaide 148 was in excess of 125, and the overall average score of Australia's seven centuries is 118.4 - the second-worst such figure of any of the 32 Ashes sides that have scored six or more centuries. England, by contrast, have averaged a relatively elephantine 120 from their one single, solitary, lonely, singular hundred. A small victory in an ocean of pain.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer

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