December 30, 2013

It's the application, not the talent

Rarely have we seen turnaround like the one Australia have just effected, but the gulf between the two teams is not as vast as the scoreline might suggest

Cook: time for a change of mindset © AFP

There is a problem at the top of the order. There is a problem at first drop. There is a problem in the middle order. The wicketkeeper may not have aged so well after all. The young fast bowlers have disappointed and the older ones are no longer to be relied upon. The coach leans towards a disarming seriousness. The captain may not have united the team quite as he thought. That was Australia, back in June, before the ten-match Ashes marathon began to bite. And it is England now, bitten.

I don't know about you but I have never seen such a switch in power, such a swift sporting coup. Of course Australia have improved out of recognition from the team that lay down to die on the lush Lord's turf. But England? England have disappeared down an Australian drain. Supporters at Melbourne airport, heading to Sydney for the win double of a New Year party on the harbour and an Ashes Test, called it "pitiful". There was no case in defence. Everyone involved must take the blows, not least the selectors who chose a tour party based on arrogance, not practicality.

To make matters worse, this is a decent but by no means exceptional Australian team. It is about as good as the English one that beat it in the first series of five. Both teams have shown strength and weakness, not something you might have said about the last Australian XI to whitewash England. In general, both teams played pretty scrappy cricket in Melbourne but there was a fascination in the mistakes made and the drama thus created.

On a fair pitch, most of the batsmen found demons that were not there. Ask Chris Rogers, who made light of it. Driven by the late opportunity given to him by desperate selectors, Rogers has cut an exemplary figure and the fruit of his honesty and labour was a sudden ability to bat more like his opening partner than his shadow. Heaven knows where this came from but Stuart Broad might have to take responsibility, given that Rogers changed gear in the first innings after a quick ball from Broad hit him on the side of the head and drew blood.

Ten Ashes matches are a godsend for Rogers, who is making up for lost time. As they are for David Warner, Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris and Nathan Lyon, to name but four. England arrived in Australia with the most to lose and lose it they have, the lot. That number, ten, must appear as a sentence to the England players, who move from venue to venue with the look of men heading to the gallows. No sympathy could be found for the feeble batting on the third afternoon of the Test, a passage of play so awful that had Bangladesh been the culprit, calls for their removal from the top flight would have been an embarrassment in both Dhaka and Dubai.

Everyone involved must take the blows, not least the England selectors who chose a tour party based on arrogance not practicality

Now there is a suggestion that Alastair Cook should resign, which makes no sense. He is the captain responsible for two of the great heists in the modern history of English cricket. The first, the rehabilitation of Kevin Pietersen after Pietersen's, and others', shameful behaviour in 2012. The second, the unlikely win in India just over a year ago. Add a 3-0 Ashes series triumph into the mix and the call should be for Cook to forge a new team in his own image, rather than the one he mainly inherited. Men such as the present captain are few and far between - intelligent, resilient, widely respected and with 8000 runs in the bank. What he must do is unravel some of the game's intricacies; move away from the set methods that have narrowed the minds of his players and lean towards risk as a chance for reward.

At the moment, his tactics are formed by the mind that has made him all those runs. It is a stubborn mind that limits options and closes out the opponent. He must find a way into the heads of his opponents and effect a few tricks they would least like. He might spend some time with Mike Brearley and Michael Vaughan to explore how they went about the job. To this point, Cook has followed the paths walked by Graham Gooch, Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss. These fine men are of a type. It is time to embrace another type.

Witness Michael Clarke, who returned from Australia last September and went in search of Mark Taylor and Allan Border. Moreover, his mate Shane Warne is always close by. These are brilliant cricket minds from which to feed and each is different, if forged from the same mill. Darren Lehmann arrived in the nick of time, for Clarke was at his wit's end with the attitude of some of those around him. Lehmann wound back the clock to an age of uncomplicated thinking and simple standards.

The truth is that things are rarely as good as you think they are and rarely as bad as you think they are. There is no great gulf between the sides in terms of talent but rather in how it is applied. The fresher the mind, the greater the chance of realising the talent. This, and the desire that has been apparent in every step taken by the Australians since Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson began their redemptive batting partnership in Brisbane, was enough to tip the scales their way. Now, with a fair wind behind them, only the most English of optimists could suggest anything other than a 5-0 walloping. It will need Cook's measure and sense of realism to understand that ghastly as that may be, another chapter will soon be written.

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

  • rob on January 1, 2014, 4:45 GMT

    I don't think there's too much between the teams in terms of talent. England slightly ahead in the batting (not in Aust. though, at a nuetral venue or in England), Australia with a slightly bigger advantage in the bowling, particularly post Swann.

    We (Aus) have got our own succession issues to worry about. Haddin won't be around in 2 years and sometime over the next 5 we'll lose Clarke, Johnson, Harris, Watson and probably a few more. Of the players in the team at the moment I can really only see Warner, Smith and Lyon taking us into the next decade and it's no sure bet than any of them will maintain form or fitness for that long. .. MN is right. Things are seldom as bad, or good, as they look.

    We've got some really good depth in the bowling dept. Guys you wouldn't have heard of in England like Abbott (a Harris style quick) and Zampa, a leggie. I'm fairly optimistic about our future bowling and lately there's been a bit of action in the batting as well. No new Clarke's though yet.

  • Mick on December 31, 2013, 9:25 GMT

    England know how to play in English conditions and where Anderson gets a lot of swing and Bell is propping up the batting. They handle the different Australian conditions badly. Their bowling attack is not quite up to it in Australian conditions. They should be able to see they need to pick different bowlers for Australia with greater pace. Broad is the exception. Both teams show arrogance in the batting line-up but Australia has gotten away with it. Australia already had the better bowling unit but addition of Johnson is just too much advantage. Most of England's batting unit are not too bad even if have gone about it incorrectly at times. Watson is not a No.3, Rogers struggled against spin, Bailey has done little, and Smith not consistent enough, yet Australia got away with all these weaknesses due to England's bowling weaknesses. Forget the batting unit, its Australia's 4 bowlers and wicketkeeper that are the difference. England needs to find express bowlers and a Swan replacement

  • Mark on December 31, 2013, 8:54 GMT

    @disco_bob, or you could try and look at the Trent Bridge Test more objectively. England had more of the bad umpiring - the stumping of Agar, and more definitely the Trott dismissal which made the game closer than it should have been. A fair result of the summer series would have been 3 - 1 to England. I think you are in for a shock also if you think England can't recover from this thrashing.

  • disco on December 31, 2013, 3:44 GMT

    But for rain and probably one of the most egregious umpire errors ever, the scoreline in England would have been 2-2 which was probably a fair assessment. England have been a team in decline from the day they reached the no.1 summit. Australia have simply taken a few years of some muddled thinking before common sense has prevailed. Even if the teams were well matched, one is on the way up and the other is fast approaching rock bottom. One has depth in batting and bowling to continue the rebuild, the other has depth in the oil slick category.

  • Dummy4 on December 30, 2013, 21:46 GMT

    Nail on head, Mark Nic. as always. Too many of the comments on it are designed to impress rather than make one think.

  • Allan on December 30, 2013, 21:07 GMT

    @ Sigismund Nice point. I think the back to back series also highlights team tactics and approach. England prepares with a planning committee, which extends to guiding the on field captaincy. Plan A is thorough, elaborate and thrashed out in minute detail. It is a lethargic brand of leadership, clearly incapable of adapting to changing conditions and evolving players. Australia prepares with multiple plans, and the on field captain has the ability to shuffle, combine and/or alter the various plans as the game situation dictates. One team learnt from the first series in England, the other stuck with their same plan, carelessly thinking it would work again.

  • Mark on December 30, 2013, 20:42 GMT

    @chugster, agree with most of what you say, we do still have a mountain to climb though prior to 2015. That said I can imagine this Aussie team will be looking somewhat different by then. And with the batting in particular they must be fairly worried if Clarke, Rogers, Watson, and Haddin have gone or are all near the end!

  • Alistair on December 30, 2013, 19:20 GMT

    Well, having digested this and seen some of the comments,especially Jonesy I have to say I agree with Mark for the most part. The difference between the sides in talent is tiny! The difference in attitude is however huge.The aussies have a new coach,old school and no nonsence who has brought a sense of perspective and fun back to the Oz team. They play with attitude and belief and with Clarke's batting and excellent captaincy,Haddins awesome rescue acts and Johnsons thunderbolts, they have simply blown a shell shocked England away.True - we are carrying a couple who are past their best but the aussies have a shocking top 6!! Warner is a liability,rogers aged,smith -well less said the better and Bailey is not good.The only truly class bowler Oz have is Harris who I have a lot of respect for.But give it 18 months and we shall see where the ashes lie.Jonesy - You are deluded my friend.We beat you in 09,smashed you in 2010/11 and in 2013 got the better of you.Enjoy this, as it wont last!

  • Isaac on December 30, 2013, 18:38 GMT

    We haven't seen this sort of turnaround before because we have very seldom if ever had back-to-back 5 match series like this before. I dare say that if we had then several would have taken this form of reversal - or else the players would have developed more experienced mindsets for them. This encounter has been fascinating in the way that it has demonstrated quite how much this game is played in the mind.

  • Naveed on December 30, 2013, 15:34 GMT

    not bad players, just bad management styles finally having an effect.

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