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January 6, 2007
England arrived with great expectations having won in 2005, but they departed with their tails between their legs after the second Ashes whitewash. Kevin Pietersen was the best of a disappointing bunch as too many of the senior players failed to come to the party.
The only Englishman with the desire to compete as an equal to the Aussies and in the end, even he was ground down by the futility of his resistance. Spent too long loitering at No. 5 in the order, however, which invariably meant that the fate of the innings had been determined before he got to the crease. His hubristic dismissal at Adelaide was his only real embarrassment, however. He could hardly be blamed for being fed up by the end of it all.
If Adelaide was heartbreaking for England as a team, then spare a thought for the forgotten star of the show. Paul Collingwood gave his heart, soul and everything in between to become only the third English batsman to score a double-century in Australia, and then, when he had nothing left to give, his still gave it second-time around, clinging on for dear life while Shane Warne demolished his life's work on that dreadful final morning. He made 329 runs at 109.67 in those first two Tests, and 104 at 17.33 in the last three. Nuff said.
What difference might Monty have made had he played from the start? It's all conjecture really. His magnificent impact at the WACA was diluted by two performances at Melbourne and Sydney in which he bowled to defensive fields and paid the price with two wickets at 71. What Monty did provide, however, was the sort of joie de vivre that was so palpably missing at Brisbane and Adelaide. England took the field in those matches like condemned men to the scaffold. What they really needed were competitors like Panesar, who genuinely wanted to get stuck into the contest.
He was slightly slow on the uptake at Brisbane, but from the moment he found his length in that match, Hoggard resumed his role as England's most reliable seamer. With a bit of support from his colleagues, his performance at Adelaide ought to have been a series-leveller. Four years ago, he was bludgeoned off a length by Hayden and Co. but he returned older, wiser and with the experience of the subcontinent to guide his tactics. Was sorely missed at Sydney, where a side-strain ended a run of 40 consecutive Test appearances.
Bell had a twin problem on this tour - making starts and converting starts. On four occasions he passed 50 without going onto a hundred; on four occasions he failed to get into double-figures in the first place. But this was a huge personal series for the one man with a massive point to prove after his traumas in 2005. He stood firm amid the wreckage of England's first innings at Brisbane, and even earned the admiration of his old tormentor, Glenn McGrath. His sheer appetite for runs could make him England's kingpin come 2009.
He is young and he will learn, but this was a torrid baptism for a man who only turned 22 on Christmas Day. Glenn McGrath and his bowl-alike Stuart Clark dismissed him in seven innings out of ten, invariably probing that troublesome corridor outside off stump - in fact his failings were remarkably similar to those of Marcus Trescothick in 2002-03. Unlike Trescothick, though, Cook did record a gritty hundred at Perth. It was the fourth of a career that began only in March. Come 2009, he will still only be 24, which is younger than the youngest Australian on display in this series.
There was only one way that Flintoff was going to lead his side, and that was by example. Alas he was over-stretched and under-prepared for the ordeal that came his way. His ankle undermined his bowling, his batting was so out-of-sorts that England's tail began at four-down, and the rest of his game fell away like needles from an unsold Christmas Tree. He found no words of inspiration in either the dressing-room or his increasingly banal press conferences, and was helpless at the crunch moments in the field - not least the Adelaide run-chase. But he was badly let down by his senior colleagues as well. On the first day at Brisbane he led with a stirring bowling performance ... but no-one followed.
Given his belated chance for Melbourne and Sydney, Read proved everything that we already knew about him. His glovework was exemplary and he twice equalled the Ashes record for dismissals in an innings (six). His batting, however, was unconvincing at best, with three single-figure scores out of four, and a soothing 26 not out when the pressure was off in the second innings at the MCG. Fletcher couldn't rate him any less highly if he tried although, barring any Jones-esque meltdowns, he now has until the end of the World Cup to convince his many doubters.
The most improbable failure of the series ... and he had some competition. Maybe Strauss was missing Trescothick's meaty strokeplay at the top of the order, because his approach seemed as muddled as some of the umpiring decisions that hastened his demise. In South Africa two winters ago, he had passed 600 runs for the series by playing precisely within his limitations - with barely a hint of a hook or a pull. This time he was flailing at everything, all too aware of his duty to set the tone for England's innings. Nine starts, but not one score in excess of 50.
Deep down, he never wanted to be involved, and nor - sadly - did anyone in the country want him to be involved. Whether he was Fletcher's pick or Flintoff's pick is immaterial. Giles had not played in a first-class match for a year when he was thrown into the Gabbatoir on November 23, and mentally he wasn't even close to full fitness. His candid newspaper diaries were arguably the best read of the tour, but what they revealed was a tortured soul whose personal doubts translated into an on-field performance notable only for what he didn't do at Adelaide - ie, hold onto that catch.
Redeemed himself partially with a spirited new-ball performance at Sydney, but for the first two Tests he was as nakedly out-of-sorts as he had been at Johannesburg in 2004-05 - and that is saying something. Just another of England's odd picks in the series, although when the pressure was off in the tour matches at Adelaide and Perth, he zipped in with pace, swing and panache. Still young enough to come good in the future. He would benefit from a long chat with Hoggard about how to recover from such a chastening tour.
When asked at the start of the series for three factors that would define England's defence of the Ashes, Mike Atherton presciently offered: "Harmison, Harmison and Harmison." In the absence of so many key performers, Harmison was the one man who had the height, pace and talent to rip the throat out of Australia's ageing batsmen. Instead, he served up that grotesque delivery at the Gabba, as a prelude to a supine performance. We all know he hates touring, but honestly. The man has now played 50 Tests.
Nobody's quite sure what Mahmood was doing on this tour. He didn't play when he ought to have done, at Brisbane and Adelaide, when he was still a man with some memory of his part in the series win over Pakistan. And then, when he was thrown in at Perth, Melbourne and Sydney, he was rarely allowed a spell of more than two overs in any Test. Admittedly, he was targetted mercilessly by the Australians, but if he'd been given the same sort of indulgence that Harmison received, he might have had a chance to bowl himself back to form.
Hard as it is to believe, Jones's selection for Brisbane did make some kind of sense. He was, after all, a man with experience of the unique pressures of an Ashes series, and it was thought that his cross-batted style would come into its own on the bouncier wickets Down Under. What wasn't taken into account, however, was the undiluted glee that his presence caused the Australians. Derided as a "club pro", he was dissected mercilessly, and at Perth, he slumped out of the contest with the most miserable pair imaginable.
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