December 10, 2013

Raise courage and commitment, England

The ability to respond to challenges that are beyond the daily call is diminished by overkill, but that is precisely the task ahead of Cook and Co

England must get back on the horse. It is not an easy thing to do for it requires courage and commitment. Neither attribute has been on show. Perhaps it is a blip but more likely the ravages of time have taken their toll. In the first Australian innings of the Adelaide Test, James Anderson bowled at medium pace and England dropped catches. In the first England innings, Kevin Pietersen drove meekly to one of two short-midwicket fielders posted specifically for the purpose, to catch him out. This is not to witch-hunt culprits but to illustrate a malaise.

In the days of three-day county cricket and three one-day competitions, great swathes of English first-class cricketers became increasingly unmotivated as the summer wore on. Those who were out of the hunt - i.e. languishing in the bottom half of the championship and/or Sunday League, and knocked out of the NatWest Trophy and Benson and Hedges Cup - played lazily and dragged others with them. Many a county cricketer lost his job because the great and the good had switched off.

The immense workload placed upon the current England team has worn it thin for much the same reason. International matches cease to be special, they are the norm. The precise moment when this happens is not obvious - nor can it ever be, because individuals are variously struck by indifference - but the ability to respond to challenges that are beyond the daily call is diminished by overkill. It is exaggerated by a voracious opponent. In short, the flesh may be willing but the spirit has turned weak. It is why sportsmen retire.

In the aftermath of defeat, Alastair Cook appeared exasperated. His spirit is more than willing because he took time on the farm at home to recharge. Others are less able to become detached - not just from cricket but from the rhythm of high-profile life. Assumptions are made about both form and opponents and assumptions are the mother of cock-ups. England assumed they would beat Australia. Fair enough, given what they saw in England. Most of us agreed.

But Australia were fired by the humiliation they have suffered and came out ugly and fighting. Michael Clarke wore an unshaven and unsavoury face. Mitchell Johnson, having grown a 1970s moustache, found the pace given to him by the gods and rejoiced in enforcing it upon the old enemy. England's gloating in Durham last August came back to haunt them in Brisbane in late November. The shock was overwhelming, as was the impact of Jonathan Trott's reaction to it. He had nothing left: the treadmill claimed its victim. The loss of Trott is not to be underestimated.

In Adelaide this past week, the mojo has deserted England so utterly that the captain seemed to stare into space as he talked, beaten and bemused. He admitted that the question asked by the media about teams' "will" was a good one. He thought the will to win the third Test in Perth was there, certainly on the surface anyway, but he admitted he didn't know what lay within the soul of his players.

It is not that the players cannot do it. It is that they will do it less often when it gets difficult. They are as jaded as the county cricketers who once endlessly travelled the motorways of Britain in search of their crust

Cook is an immensely proud man. In an interview prior to the series he agreed it was "cool" that this tour would forever be remembered as the one undertaken by "Alastair Cook's side". The legacy was important and the history satisfying. But he never figured it would go like this. Two-zero down and drowning. So he said he hoped the "will" was there, but he sort of admitted he could not vouch for it. Doubtless, he means collective will.

Anderson and Pietersen are England's most skilful cricketers. England's catching has been very good, until now. In the second innings, with the match pretty much gone, Anderson bowled some spiteful outswingers at 140kph, a couple of catches were held, and Pietersen batted as if he meant it for 50-odd. It is not that the players cannot do it. It is that they will do it less often when it gets difficult. They are as jaded as the county cricketers who once endlessly travelled the motorways of Britain in search of their crust.

It is courage and commitment that England must raise if Perth is to be conquered. Cook's first job is to throw a party and see everyone arrive for practice with a hangover. Somehow he must encourage his men to relax their bodies and minds. There is nothing that will improve the cricket they play more than respite. And as they relax, he can begin to remind them how good they are. He can talk of runs made, wickets taken, catches held and battles won. He should ask the Sky television team for a thorough highlights reel from last summer in England. And another from the last tour to Australia, when England were winning by the same margins, and greater, than those they are losing by now. And they should all sit back and wallow in it.

And then he should make a call to arms. The WACA ground in Perth has provided many a surprise, usually in Australia's favour: but nothing is given, these things must be earned. It is England who must go out and earn.

Courage is needed to face both fast bowling and failure. Commitment is needed to overcome it. Having talked of past glories, Cook must then pick a past team, one that includes Tim Bresnan and Jonny Bairstow. Ben Stokes was a nice idea but misguided, Monty Panesar a good choice if the toss had been won. Perhaps fewer hook strokes should be attempted, at least of the variety that go up to the fielders set to catch them.

None of this is easy but nor is it impossible. England are playing a team they beat 3-0 the other day, so clearly that team is flawed. Locate where and expose it, England. Thousands have flown across the world to see you at first hand. Reward them, and your captain's faith, with your effort.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

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