England unravelling through run drought
The 2011 series between India and England was supposed to be a heavyweight contest for the No. 1 Test ranking. But had England played Ravi Shastri on his own holding a microphone, they would have got stiffer opposition. England won 4-0. England were No. 1.
Until today, England were unbeaten in their ten Tests this year. It is not a record to be mocked. A closer look does show that five of those were draws, four against teams with far worse recent records and low rankings.
It would be foolish and idiotic to say this England team is shot because they have lost this one Test. First Tests are not England's speciality; they outlast and win over teams in the long haul. That might still happen; they could come back in Adelaide and win this series. But despite that fact, England have certainly not been at their best since they demolished India at home. Something is not quite right with this team.
Jonathan Trott's second innings shot might be the one people remember, but the sight of a well-set Alastair Cook nicking Nathan Lyon behind might be the real story of the last two years of English cricket. A lack of daddy hundreds.
In 2009, Andy Flower picked Graham Gooch from commentary duties and got him to look after his batsmen. It started as part-time but soon became a full-time position. In 2010, Alastair Cook was an edgy, flawed mess at the crease. A year later he was a batting like a lizard God.
Gooch may have fixed, tweaked and encouraged better results, but what the world heard was "daddy hundreds". A hundred was okay, but a score of 150 and over was a daddy. Gooch wanted Gooch-style hundreds, he wanted England players to approach the 333s, he wanted them to control the game, grind the bowlers into the ground and cash in when they were on top.
It was almost as if anything under 150 was seen by Gooch as flirting. An inconsequential occupation of the crease. The hundreds he wanted were the ones that bat companies use on the stickers of their bats. The kind that you tell your friends you were at. The ones that win series and kill bowlers.
England responded by scoring many of these hundreds. They ground bowlers into the turf, they won series after series, they became the best side in the world. The daddy hundred was their foundation.
The idea was simple enough; England wanted to bat for the longest time, blunting the new ball, setting up the game for their batsmen to tire out the bowlers for this Test, and the next, ensuring that their bowlers were fully rested between innings. Opposition batsmen would look at scores of 500, 600 or 700 and be mentally defeated.
It's not a radical plan, although it was different to the more attacking smash-the-opposition-bowlers-around-the-head-and-mentally-beat-them style of Australia and West Indies. Most importantly, like a team of well-programmed robots, England did it almost perfectly.
They lost to West Indies at the start of 2009. They were bowled out for 51. It was a low point. Andrew Strauss was the new captain, Flower interim coach. But in their next nine Test series, they won eight and drew one. And considering the one they drew was in South Africa, it was a pretty great time to be an England player. In that period they played 31 Tests and they scored 16 daddy hundreds. When their players got in, they didn't leave until the opposition bowlers were completely defeated.
By the time India arrived in England, they were entering a machine of efficiency that they couldn't compete with. They handed their No. 1 crown straight over.
England blew past them and started talking legacy. Being No. 1 was nice, but this was a team that wanted to be the sort of side that people talked about for generations to come. With only Strauss nearing retirement, No. 1 was a step on the way to cricket's next dynasty.
You had to be at the Gabba in 2010 to know how complete Cook, Strauss and Trott's domination of Australia was. England had stuttered in the first innings. They'd very nearly broken Australia with the ball, before being smashed by Haddin and Hussey. All the hope and expectation that England had coming into the series had already started to evaporate for all but their most fanatical fans. Then came 517 for 1.
Strauss made a normal hundred. Trott was on the way to a daddy. Cook made a daddy. It was solid, clinical and sweatless. Mitchell Johnson was embarrassed. Ben Hilfenhaus was milked. Neither would play in the next Test. If Steve Harmison's first ball was a symbol of how weak and ill-equipped England were for the Ashes in 2006-07, then 517 for 1 in this series was a statement they were absolutely ready.
It was only a draw. But that innings changed the dynamic of the two teams. England weren't afraid, they weren't useless, and once they got in, they weren't moving.
A week later, in Adelaide, Cook made 148, practically a daddy. Pietersen made 227. Dougie Bollinger, Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris bowled 88 overs. From that moment onwards, even with the freak win in Perth, Australia were never going to win that Test series.
The series after beating India, England lost their first series in ten attempts. They went to play Pakistan in the UAE with a clear plan to sweep. Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehmann tormented them. England's bowlers did very well and did everything they could to keep them in the game but their batsmen couldn't find any runs, and Pakistan struck down the No. 1 Test side.
Soon after, England went to Galle and lost to Rangana Herath. In Colombo, in the second and final Test against Sri Lanka, Kevin Pietersen made a daddy hundred. England drew the series. It was a good end to a horror winter.
Perhaps it was a hangover from becoming No. 1, maybe just a blip, or even a weakness against spin. But England had rightly been favoured to win both series and won neither. They bounced back by beating West Indies, and Tino Best's innings aside, they were okay.
Then South Africa arrived and there was something not quite right about England. The South Africa batsmen were playing the way England used to, and the English batsmen had become cavalier. Strauss was in a funk that would end his career. Cook started nicking off at balls he wouldn't previously have given the time of day. Trott was loose. Ian Bell never got going. Matt Prior was good but couldn't make a ton. Only Pietersen, who played one of the great innings, and caused off-field carnage, looked anything like his best.
For South Africa, three daddy hundreds were made. Amla's (a family patriarch 311) was the one that set up the whole series. It was only three Tests, a woeful playoff for world No. 1, but England never looked like the better team. They almost stole the Test at Headingley, they were close enough not to get embarrassed at Lord's, but South Africa were just better.
Coming off a loss to South Africa, with an ordinary result against Sri Lanka, and a beating by Pakistan in their minds, England were hammered in Ahmedabad. Almost no sides would have come back from that. And they might not have, had it not been for Cook, the new captain.
Much like at the Gabba, they were massively behind in the game, and looking shaky, when Cook batted for 556 minutes and made his daddy 176. England were still humiliated by nine wickets. But Cook had shown them that they could score in India, and when they did, they could do it for a very long time.
The next Test, Cook made a normal hundred, Pietersen made a daddy, England won by 10 wickets. The third Test Cook made 190. England won by seven wickets. The fourth was drawn, largely because of Trott's 143.
England had won in India for the first time since 1984-85, coming from one Test down. After losing their No. 1 crown and the ast series against South Africa, it was an amazing effort and a historical win. Perhaps the other series were a temporary blip.
Graeme Swann missed the trip to New Zealand, Pietersen came home during it, both with old-man wear-and-tear injuries. A New Zealand team missing a few players as well shouldn't have been a real challenge for the recent No. 1 and conquerors of India. It turned out that the best England could do in the series was hold on to a draw, with Prior and Monty Panesar holding on to lifeboats. They only just managed to lose a series they should never have been in a position to lose. But they atoned back in the UK with an easy win over a now-hapless New Zealand.
Against Australia earlier this year, they were never at their best. They went very close to losing the first Test, smashed Australia in the second, were in a very dangerous position when the rain came in the third, founded an inspirational Stuart Broad to win the fourth, and almost stole the fifth before bad light spoiled the party.
For the batsmen, Bell was outstanding, but no one else was. Pietersen was good, Root had one amazing innings, but without Bell, the entire series might have looked different. The Australian bowlers were never pushed into the ground. The Australian batsmen were never kept waiting for hours on end. England just won almost every important moment in the series.
In their eight series since becoming No. 1, England had won four, drawn two, and lost two. It was hardly a collapse, but it was a long way from 517 for 1.
The early Flower years had 16 daddy hundreds. The last two years had only five from five fewer Tests, three of which were in their amazing win over India. Back in the old days, even Broad was making daddy hundreds.
In the last two years all their regular batsmen are averaging below their career averages. Cook is minus five, Prior minus four, even Bell minus eight despite his magical Ashes. Trott is down eight runs, along with Pietersen, even though he has made two of the best Test hundreds ever in that time. The story has been one of deterioration.
In the two years before that, Cook averaged 12 runs above his career total (17 more than in the previous two-year period), Prior 1 more (an increase of five), Bell 26 more (an increase of 34), Pietersen 1 more (nine ahead), and Trott 11 more (19 runs better). That was a whole lot of improvement.
But with poorer individual numbers have come lower totals. England have not passed 400 in the last 18 attempts. And it's hard to grind the opposition down when you don't pass 400.
None of the other batsmen have fared much better. Strauss retired. Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara are now perceived as limited-overs specialists. Samit Patel was a horse for a course in Sri Lanka. James Taylor and Nick Compton are out of favour; one might come back, the other probably never will. Jonny Bairstow never really got going but should be back. Root oozes talent, and has a decent record so far, but he needs to find his position and be trusted for a while. Other than Strauss, none of the above average over 40 in Test cricket.
Anderson, Swann and Broad haven't had the same drop-off. They are all the same or better than their career averages in both periods. Even without the rest and the psychological advantage that their batsmen used to provide, they are still players who have been constantly winning matches for England, or keeping them in them.
The only weakness in England's bowling in that time has been the fourth man in the attack. Tim Bresnan, once presented as a novelty good-luck charm, was actually averaging 23 with the ball in that period, and often bowled the hard spells to rest the strike bowlers. He had the ability to keep the run rate down or take the wickets.
Then Bresnan picked up an elbow injury. Because it was Bresnan, and everything about him is so low key, it was barely talked about. But from that point on, Bresnan never looked like the same bowler. In the last two years, he has averaged 45 with the ball. Some of that was on Asian pitches but his average at home is also 40. Currently Bresnan is out of the team, his recovery from a stress fracture not yet proven.
The other fourth bowlers have not been much better. Chris Tremlett was brought back much on the form of three years ago and looks like a bad artist's impression of the Tremlett from then. Steve Finn is deemed too expensive and cannot consistently stay in the team. Graham Onions dominates county cricket but couldn't get in the squad for this tour, let alone the team.
England's newer options haven't looked great. Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan were average and poor respectively at The Oval, but they at least have youth and, in Woakes' case, batting on their side. Panesar will be back, possibly as soon as Adelaide, but his form in county cricket won't have Australia scared. A long-term answer for the fourth bowling spot is not that apparent, unless Finn learns the discipline Flower craves.
That England could not win or save the Test at the Gabba was always inevitable. None of their batsmen stepped up, none of them ever looked remotely unmovable, and at no time did two men get together and become the rocks that at least would bring England some respect. There was no fight, no runs, and no hundreds, let alone a daddy.
The key men are changing. Strauss is gone. Geoff Miller has announced his intention to stand down as chairman of selectors. Flower might be next. The core of the team is still almost all there - because you don't fluke repeated double-centuries and totals of over 500 - but will this lot of quality players be able to lift England to those heights again?
The legacy they were trying to build is now secondary to just trying to regain their best form, and chasing South Africa as the best team on earth. There was a time when a missed run-out of Cook would have almost certainly cost you a daddy hundred, and any chance of winning a game. This time it cost Australia 65 runs and an earlier finish.