England's road to hell
Andy Flower stood in the SCG giving a sermon. He was surrounded by the entire England set-up. A proper crowd. Most of them big men, some seemingly twice his size. They stood around and virtually on top of this one small, intense man as he preached the good word. Unlike the sort of speeches coaches make in films, this didn't look like it was uplifting, or would even teach the players a moral lesson. This was a professional coach laying down his law with a solid monologue.
Alastair Cook stood beside him, but just far enough away for it not to be a message he was directly involved in. The older players had steely looks on their face; it was hard to tell if they were genuinely listening, or just a bit over it all. The younger players looked on earnestly. As if they were afraid not to be showing enough attention. Afraid they would be judged.
The words kept coming from Flower. They were delivered at what seemed the same pace. Never exploding into yell or rant, never worrying too much about cadence or drama. Just a steady flow of information from the coach who guided England to No. 1. His hands often moving, sometimes instructional, sometimes to really emphasise one of his many prepared remarks.
The key to great oratory is to keep people listening. You either need to be brilliant, or brief. After a quite a few minutes you could see the fidgeting. The lecture had gone on too long. The England players almost all had their hands behind their backs. Fiddling with balls, or shirts, or just their fingers.
Flower's line-in-the-sand address had turned into a soliloquy that seemed to have no end.
Before the Gabba, Alastair Cook hurt his back, Matt Prior suffered a calf injury, Kevin Pietersen had a knee injection and it rained. England's idyllic warm up was drowned and sore even before they got to Brisbane.
Once in Brisbane they faced what they hadn't faced as a modern England team, a howling Australian press. Pietersen was involved in a never-ending battle with a city that had one newspaper and endless insults. Stuart Broad became a villain, despite doing what Australian cricketers have done since they had legs. And the crowd were angry and loud.
On the field, they picked Chris Tremlett based on unimpressive county returns and what happened three years earlier. But they were about to find out that almost nothing was like three years ago. Tremlett bowled smart, with admirable control, but slower than an elderly couple deciding on a rental car. It was like watching a really boring press conference where a scientist explains that an animal is actually no longer venomous.
What made Tremlett even slower was that Mitchell Johnson was quicker. Way quicker. And more confident. And fitter. And scarier. He'd changed from a plush toy shark into a great white. Jonathan Trott jumped around his crease trying to show how it wasn't bothering him. He did everything he could to get in behind the ball, and at times almost ended up at point. Johnson only took four wickets, but it felt like ten, or twenty, or maybe even a hundred.
Australia's second innings mocked their bowlers; England's second innings was cadaverous. They lost by 381 runs. It could have been infinity.
Trott left the tour on what should have been day five of the Test. At the SCG, England tried their third No. 3 of the series.
The senior England players moped around the SCG. It has been a long, depressing tour and their body language showed every part of it. The new players were anxious and unsure. No one seemed to be smiling. The few conversations seem hushed.
As they stretched and warmed up, they looked like video game characters who hadn't been engaged by the game play. Trying to look natural, but no one seemed to be looking at anyone. Everyone was facing a different direction and all looked out of tune with each other.
It was much different to how they looked in the previous Ashes, only a few months ago. The professional machine looked broken, it was still going through the motions, but nothing was right.
England had shown a lot of arrogance - and earned the right to - while getting to the top of world cricket. On the days before Tests they would walk around like they owned the ground, and everything in it. They were players who'd had many ups and downs personally but, as a team, they had done well enough to have what the uncool pop stars call 'swag'. As they were largely made up of players who grew up during the West Indies and Australia years, they knew how the walk went. You had to show people you were the business.
The only arrogant walk any England players have now is on YouTube, when Michael Carberry imitates Viv Richards. Carberry certainly didn't walk off that way after he played a shocker to the second ball after tea to start the final collapse.
Alice Springs should have been a time to regroup, to tick the unticked boxes, to re-strategise, improve the KPIs and focus a results-based plan that could win England the series. Instead their batsmen did little and their backup bowlers bowled lifeless short-pitched spells and were cracked around by a random group of fringe state players with first-class batting averages in their 20s. Tim Bresnan did well, as he wasn't there, but bowling in an emerging players team with virtually no one watching.
England didn't rush in with Bresnan, but instead chose Monty Panesar on the largely untested Adelaide Oval Test pitch. Being that England rarely gamble with two spinners outside the subcontinent, this was the second time they had done it in three Tests - after the failed Simon Kerrigan experiment at home. Monty was marginally quicker than Tremlett but he wasn't as accurate. It was a gamble that didn't pay off.
England also chose Panesar's return to pay homage to him in the field. They dropped, or didn't even go for, all chance of beating Australia. And they did it on a peach of a batting wicket. Mitchell Johnson could be blamed for their batting. Brad Haddin could be blamed for their bowling. Surely they had run out of excuses when it came to fielding. They were just rubbish. Prior's wicketkeeping was now as bad as his batting. They were defeated and, after being smeared around the field by Haddin, Michael Clarke, and Ryan Harris (who made a king pair the last time in Adelaide) they had to go out and face Johnson.
The pitch might not have been evil, but Johnson was. If they were mortally wounded in Brisbane, England were buried in Adelaide. The most assured they looked against Johnson was when Ian Bell was playing against him, or when Broad was waiting for a shiny knob on the sightscreen to be fixed. At no other time did they look like they could handle him. They were called cowards and worse. It was bomb-a-Pom time, on and off the field.
They responded by hooking. Cook, the man who didn't sweat once in the Adelaide heat three years earlier, now tried to show how not afraid he was by hooking. It is the most macho shot you can play, and England played it often, and went out to it almost as often. It was far worse than going out on a flat pitch, because this was the first sign that not only were England no good, they had decided their whole game plan was no good.
By the SCG, they seemed to have no actual game plan but still felt the need to execute it, or themselves, as quickly as possible.
During slips practice, an enterprising assistant coach didn't throw the ball at the bat for an edge, but threw it miles back over the slips' head to replicate a skied pull shot. It was Cook who raced back to get it. It started well, he ran hard, and clearly wanted to take it, but then it swirled on him, he suddenly didn't seem to care as much and then he barely tried to take the catch as the ball hit the ground. Instead of being annoyed at himself, he looked back at the coach and held his arms out.
That moment ended the slips drill and Cook wandered off to take a look at the pitch. He stood at the Randwick End and played a few shadow strokes and leaves to balls around off stump.
He didn't get much alone time, soon Prior was with him and Prior clearly wanted to talk. It seemed like they were talking about wicketkeeping technique, perhaps Jonny Bairstow's. Prior was very animated, Cook looked bored and occasionally nodded.
Cook continued to play shadow shots as the roller came at him and Prior talked - at one stage the groundsman operating the roller had to stop, Cook had barely seen it coming. It was perhaps the nicest treatment he received in Australia. And all it did was delay the inevitable.
Two days later standing in the exact same spot at the Randwick End, Cook absent-mindedly left a ball and was rolled.
England were supposed to do two things in Perth, unleash their battalion of tall bowlers, and lose. They got part of that right. Their six-plus metres of height were not unpacked. Tremlett was already seen as too slow. Boyd Rankin as too raw. And Steven Finn as comically out of form. They instead went back to their Clydesdale draught horse Bresnan. Shorter, and without much match fitness, but reliable and safe. The perfect England selection. Unfortunately, whether they gambled or played it safe, nothing worked. Bresnan was not the secret ingredient to happiness.
England were backing the players who had got them to No. 1, even with the overwhelming evidence that they weren't the same.
After Haddin saved Australia for the third time, England now had to conquer the world's most dangerous bowler on the world's deadliest pitch. England put on an 85-run opening stand, Johnson only took two wickets, but somehow England still ended well short of Australia's total. And Broad had his foot all but taken off by Johnson.
Australia's second innings was perhaps the worst of it for England. Broad was getting examined in a hospital. Bresnan tried. Stokes tried. Graeme Swann tried. James Anderson was tired. The Australia top order batsmen essentially played the role of the guys who only come in and fight when the other bloke is near unconscious on the ground. Warner was mean. Watson repeatedly kicked Swann. Bailey went world record on Anderson.
Despite there being 26,000 Test runs between Cook, Prior, Bell and Pietersen, it was Ben Stokes, playing in his second Test, who made the hundred. In Sydney, Stokes left a ball that pitched on the stumps, and hit the stumps.
After his chat with Cook, Prior took Bairstow aside for some coaching. It was on the rubber mat that replicates keeping from a spinner. Bairstow took to it like a duck taking to architecture. Balls hit his hands and rebounded in random directions. Some went through his legs; even the ones he took often hit only one glove.
Every time he didn't take one cleanly he smashed the rubber training stump in anger with his gloves. Prior remained kneeling, calmly feeding balls when Bairstow wasn't chasing ones he missed, or taking a short anger management walk. Eventually, after one too many misses, Bairstow just booted the training stump about 20 metres away. Bairstow then moved on to the ball machine, which fired fast deliveries at him. He dropped one of those as well.
All that was still better than this three ball duck to a defensive prod.
Graeme Swann took the pressure off his team-mates by putting it all on himself. It was the worst-timed retirement in history, or the best-timed depending on how you saw it. Selfish or selfless. Maybe it was both. But his bowling certainly wasn't helping England. His batting hadn't helped much either. Only his fielding would be missed in his current form.
Trott had run scared they said. Swann had retired bruised they said. England were selfish loser cowards they said. With the series over, they said a lot.
Now, even the English practice sessions became unruly and tired. Instead of the professionalism and precision of before, it was like a bunch of blokes who'd been blackmailed into training in the nets.
England had finally decided to end Prior's bad run. A big call considering his position as vice-captain, the right call considering how his game had fallen apart piece by piece over the last 10 or so Tests. But their back-up was the batsman they didn't think was good enough during the last Ashes. A batsman who keeps a bit. Really more of an athlete who can fill in. The sort of guy you give the gloves to if your main guy gets injured on the day. Bairstow is the sort of wicketkeeper who can race after a leg bye with amazing speed and throw with a good arm. But he's not a keeper keeper, or even a keeper batsman, he's a batsman with keeping gloves on.
Prior's demise was slow. It was clear that, despite his previous few years' good form, he needed to have a break - but it felt like England had no back up. Where was the future proofing?
Clarke gave England their first real break of the series when he decided to bowl first in Melbourne. England took it, stumbled, but as their openers batted in the second innings, they were 100 runs in front and had 10 wicket still to lose. The dead rubber was their oyster. Somehow they managed to collapse twice in the one innings, end with a moderate lead and a nasty, new-ball evening session to play with.
They took no wickets that night. Missed two easy chances the next morning (one from their new keeper not moving, the other from their captain's broken mind). And Australia cruised to a total that should never have been that easy only two wickets down.
Had it been in the first Test, it would have been one of the best comebacks in years. Instead it was in the fourth Test, and incredibly inevitable. Although, not as inevitable as what happened in Sydney.
England don't take chances with selections. Darren Pattinson's selection in 2008 seemed to scare them all straight. Second spinners aren't thrown in on a whim. Raw quicks aren't tested for fun. Young batsmen are groomed slowly. There are plans, plans and plans about plans.
And yet, the XI at the SCG had only five centrally contracted players in it. Of the 11 who do have contracts, three had been dropped, one had retired, one had gone home and one never played. The current team instead had a bloke who was playing club cricket in Sydney a few weeks back. On this tour 20 players have been in the squad, 18 have played. James Tredwell was added for this Test and didn't play. Finn (centrally contracted) has been on the entire hell tour and hasn't played.
Finn is 24. Finn is six foot seven. Finn has 90 Test wickets. Finn has a strike rate of 48. Finn bowls at 90mph. And Finn has not played in one Test as his team stumbled from disaster to shambolic, tripped-over farce and then fell face first into a steaming pile of 5-0.
Instead Boyd Rankin played and might end up being remembered most often at pub cricket trivia nights as the last wicket of the 2013-14 series.
The dictaphones were all on the desk. Andy Flower sat behind it. He was talking to a journalist and said "If anything I have relaxed a little in certain ways…" While he said it, he rearranged the Dictaphones in front of him. "If anything, I could bring more intensity and a closer control on certain things."
Less than three days later the Test was over. It had lasted marginally longer than his soliloquy.