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Previous England inadequacies were masked by a handful of excellent players but now the national side are showing the results of an environment too cosy for those whose faces fit and one that ostracises the rest
George Dobell at Lord's
July 21, 2014
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It was probably fitting that defeat should be sealed with a run-out: it summed up a hapless, helpless display from an England side full of panic and littered with self-harm and basic errors. Every time it seems they have reached a new low, they find a pot-hole to fall down. England are now winless in their last 10 Tests and have lost seven of the last nine. The plummet, the pain, seem endless.
There are times in sport when a team can be simply outclassed by a superior rival. And that is no disgrace. The England side that was thrashed by West Indies in 1984 found themselves in a battle between men and superheroes. They could not win.
That is not the case here. England, not for the first time this summer, have been outplayed in their own back yard by a side from the subcontinent. A side who had not won a Test away from home for more than three years.
But India's bowlers utilised the conditions better; their batsmen left the ball better. England were bounced out by an Indian seamer - as they were at Headingley by a Sri Lankan seamer - for perhaps the first time in history. An Indian bowler who came into the game with a Test bowling average of 37.79. And it happened on a tailor-made green pitch when they won the toss.
It used to be said that a player never recovers from a disappointing Ashes. And it is true that history is littered with examples of players who, once exposed in Australia, have never been quite the same again.
It looks increasingly as if that is the case now. The majority of those - Joe Root is perhaps the only exception - who were thrashed in Australia have struggled to recover (Jonathan Trott, Boyd Rankin and Steven Finn might be even better examples of players damaged by the tour), with a weakness against the short ball having developed like an epidemic within the team. Call it shellshock, call it post-traumatic stress, but to lose one batsman to a reckless pull stroke might be considered unfortunate, as Oscar Wilde so almost said, but to lose three? To lose five batsmen to short deliveries within an hour? England are in denial if they fail to accept they have a problem.
In truth, they are in denial on several issues. It might be the only way Peter Moores and co. can face getting up in the morning. For Moores was not dealt a handful of aces when he was appointed England coach. Indeed, had it been a hand in a game of poker, he might have folded.
Moores inherited a beaten, broken, mentally exhausted side. He has inherited a failing system whose inadequacies had been masked by the performances of a handful of excellent players and he has inherited an environment too cosy for those whose faces fit and one that ostracises the rest.
How else to explain the post-match support for Matt Prior? Prior has undoubtedly been a fine player for England but, after equalling the record for the most byes conceded by an English keeper in a home Test for 80 years, he fell to a pull shot for the second time in the game as obligingly as if providing catching practice.
This is in stark contrast to the criticism of Kevin Pietersen following his dismissals in the Ashes. Whereas Pietersen was labelled selfish, Prior was informed by Alastair Cook that it was "up to him" if he wanted to continue playing. There is more than a sniff of hypocrisy about such inequitable treatment. But whereas "Matty" is one of the boys, Pietersen was an outsider. Merit hardly comes into the equation. The decision to dispense with Pietersen, England's highest runscorer in the Ashes, remember, remains weak and damaging.
Moores might also reflect on how it has come to pass that, in a nation with 18 first-class counties, all with well-financed academies, a Lions team and age-group teams at county and national level, that there are so few realistic options for an alternative captain, spinner or wicketkeeper.
He might reflect on the lack of leaders in his side, the lack of tactical awareness of his bowlers and the lack of flexibility he is allowed to make to the captaincy in a system in which the ECB's chairman and the England team managing director have backed Cook so resolutely that to sack him might be politically impossible.
A familiar story: recent England collapses
And he might reflect on why it is that several of those who have come into the side and held their own - Gary Ballance and Sam Robson - developed, at least in part, in other countries. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the English system is not producing in the quality or quantity it should be.
Moores has done little to suggest he is the man to turn the tide but it is mistakes made long before his time that are harming England now. The decision to squeeze the first half of the County Championship season into April and May - a decision made largely to make time for a T20 window that no longer exists - limited the opportunities for spin bowlers, while the emergence of free-thinking leaders was stunted by a system that seems to view such characters as trouble.
It was, after all, in a team meeting in Australia in which the problems with Pietersen came to a head. Pietersen, asked for his opinions on the failings of the team, gave them only to find they were unpalatable to the sensitivities of some of those around him. And in English cricket, rocking the boat is a far worse sin than losing. Nick Compton was dropped as much due to the fact that a coterie of senior players did not like him as anything to do with his form; senior players who did nothing to make new faces feel comfortable and increased their fear of failure.
So it was that few of the current side developed the leadership skills they might have done. They learned long ago that they would progress more smoothly if they kept their mouths shut. The dominance of Andy Flower stunted the development of several in the England dressing room and instead of players learning to think for themselves, the relationship became prescriptive. More like teacher-pupil or parent-child. There is no place for free-thinkers like Pietersen or Compton.
Equally, England have developed a generation of coaches who distrust flair and who prefer reliability to genius. Coaches who look smart in blazers, fill in spreadsheets attentively and never threaten the positions of those above them. Any player who emerges through the academy in England does so in spite of it, not because of it. Why else would it be that fast bowlers involved in the England set-up drop pace by the month - just look at Steven Finn or Liam Plunkett - or that batsmen fresh to the team are out-performing those who have been established for years?
With three Tests remaining in the series, England have a chance to turn things around. But to do so they will have to defeat not just an improved India side, but their own history, their own tired bodies, jaded minds and broken system.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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