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