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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Simon on December 12, 2013, 3:16 GMT

    "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". Come off it Mark, this series has been on the books for how long? I'm sure the players aren't claiming burnout and I'm surprised an ex County cricketer is throwing it up. Poor form makes any competitor mentally wearier, but the challenges in front of England are the same for every match and can in no way be construed to be beyond the daily call. Hindsight's a wonderful thing and I'm sure the ECB can dissect the 2013 schedule in a couple of weeks, but right now the players have the same challenge in front of them as they did on January 1, 2013. Cook may be struggling for form, but he's right it's Alistair Cooks' side playing, therefore it's Alistair Cooks' job to reinvigorate the 'collective will'!

  • Dummy on December 11, 2013, 22:26 GMT

    They have the skill I agree. But Perth is tough place to make a turnaround! England should look to compete and a draw would be satisfying I think in the current circumstances. Thy should've stuck with Bairstrow and definitely Bresnan should play if he's fit. Would like to see Finn get a go on a fast bouncy WACA wicket!!

  • S on December 11, 2013, 21:25 GMT

    "jaded as the county cricketers who once endlessly travelled the motorways of Britain in search of their crust" - Hard to buy that, this is the Ashes, even a jaded touring pro should need little motivation to fire up for this contest. Perhaps this is a matter of being outplayed by an underestimated Australian team who to date in the series have done a lot of the basics right in terms of taking catches, batting & bowling in partnerships, and even on day 1 at Brisbane when 6/132 not dropping their heads.

  • Dummy4 on December 11, 2013, 19:21 GMT

    Yep...England have used up every ounce of good luck going and of course utilized no small amount of skill with the ball in the past couple of years. Good luck to them but it's all up now and several changes have to be made to the whole setup at the conclusion of this series. They need a fresh injection of pace as well as a change of coach and especially batting coach. I don't know what Graham Gooch is doing but it's clearly not working. How about replacing him with Andrew Hilditch??

  • Xiong on December 11, 2013, 13:17 GMT

    "Too much cricket". Funniest excuse ever. I know plenty of people who would be happy to be paid 10x their current wage to travel around the world playing a game. If your players can't get it together mentally, kick them out. Simple. It's modern professional sport, they all play a lot and most of them aren't home regularly. Then again neither are people who are working 50+ hours a week. Sure, you sleep in your own bed, but quality family time is a bit of a stretch. At least a pro cricketer gets some lengthy time off at home here and there. Maybe English cricketers need to grow up a bit? 162 games in a regular season of baseball, excluding pre-season and playoffs, just to name one other sport. They seem to be mentally there when it comes playoff time, no? Maybe if being a professional sport is too hard for the English their players can quite and get a real job. I'm sure they would find that much easier.

  • Steve on December 11, 2013, 10:54 GMT

    @ ScottStevo.....I agree mate and love your summary saying " One of us is aware our team is flawed, the other is still in serious denial and has believed for some time they're much, much better than they actually are."..............but for one thing, Australian teams will always come out fighting, punching above their weight and no team in the world no matter at what stage in their development or where they are playing takes them lightly. Given the current climate of both camps and if he were still alive Churchill would be calling himself Australian!!!!!

  • Steve on December 11, 2013, 10:17 GMT

    Gawd Mark, can you get the trumpets to stop and come down from your soap box please? LOL

    You tend to forget that England played a home Ashes series on featherbed pitches made to order for Swann and to a certain extent Cook (he had no fear of someone taking his head off with decent bounce) They played against a team ranked probably 5th or 6th who just got drubbed in India, dumped their disfunctional coach, changed their side more often than a tossed 20cent piece and were clearly second rate and yet......and yet.... only scaped by in a couple of test, were clearly under the pump in two others and had a day out in another. Given where both teams were and given pitch conditions. team conditions etc anything below 5-0 would be unacceptable and yet.......and yet Australia fought. Now Aust has conditions in its favour, where curators are producing real Test Match cricket wickets England are all but gone.

    So Mark, the question should be asked. Did England ever really have it?

  • Scott on December 11, 2013, 10:09 GMT

    Loads of excuses to hide the painfully obvious truth: that this English side are a bog average test team who have hidden their flaws well, run on fumes for around the last 2 years using up as much luck as will to draw/win series. During this period their batting has been close to woeful and their tail has prospered and it's generally their bowling keeping them in the hunt. Australia haven't been much better for around 4 years and have stolen one of Eng's previously more favoured batting tactic - the horrid collapse! Either side have enough talent to beat the other, but let's not kid oursevles into believing our sides are any better than they currently are. One of us is aware our team is flawed, the other is still in serious denial and has believed for some time they're much, much better than they actually are. Complacency was their word of choice; but just how long does complacency run before it's acknowledged that the level being played is actually the norm?

  • glenn on December 11, 2013, 8:57 GMT

    Sujeet Raj Srivastav on (December 11, 2013, 5:28 GMT)

    You realise that Johnson bowled 3 and 1 LBW in the first innings and only took one wicket in the second innings. You, like many, miss the point that Australia is playing well and England badly; Johnson is only one factor, the other 4 bowlers chip in at different times, usually to dry up the runs (think Watson) or to nag out batsman (think Siddle). To underestimate Harris is the highest order of folly. He would make every test team in the world including SA. The insipid bowling of Anderson and the flaying of Swann are equally if not more important. Australia has 4 centuries, England none. Carberry, Root, Bell and Broad have all had good games but the others have been woeful. England desperately need Cook and KP to fire and for Anderson to find some zing. If they expose the tail in Perth again, they are likely to be toast.

  • Dummy4 on December 11, 2013, 5:40 GMT

    Everyone is bashing India for playing poorly in 2 one dayers (which they started playing 2 and half days after landing), and I guess Indians don't play less cricket than England. Nice that at least England is getting some support despite similar performance, even though they did get much better opportunity to prepare. keep is up guys!

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