Together they fall
A low ebb can typically be found in any city in the world at 3am on a Saturday morning. It's someone lying in their own sick, urine and faeces. The night started with such high hopes.
In cricket, a low ebb is when you get the exact pitch you have ordered for a Test, you win the toss, and then you lose against a team which hasn't won away from home in three years. The Test started with such high hopes.
The ECB has a blueprint for its perfect kind of cricketer.
An English cricketer should be someone who has come through the English set-up in some way. County cricket form is less important. They need to have impressed at academies, on Lions tours, been through the testing systems, be easy to handle, aggressive but defend first, respectful of authority, and young.
The bowlers should be tall and fast, bowl long spells. The spinners should be orthodox and consistent. The body shapes should be slim, muscular and fit for purpose. And in leadership they should be from the right kind of family.
A fresh-looking Stuart Broad bounces through to deliver a full and swinging ball to MS Dhoni. Dhoni plays an aggressive waft that looks designed largely to get an edge. India lead by 52.
Harbhajan Singh walks in at No. 8. Broad goes full and straight with this newish ball. It is given out lbw. Despite the obvious deflection. Broad is on a hat-trick. DRS schadenfreude takes full effect. India lead by 52.
Praveen Kumar faces the next ball. Broad is on a good length this time. Praveen's bat seems to be operated by an invisible goblin that won't allow it to move properly and the stumps fly. Broad flies past him into the arms of his ecstatic, hat-trick-happy team-mates. They bounce with joy. They are a team. They are as one. The fans raise their beers in triumph. Ian Botham applauds like a loving dad from the balcony.
It is July 30, 2011. Before Broad's intervention, India were 52 runs ahead with five wickets in hand. They would move that lead to 67. They would lose by 319 runs. India go down 2-0. Then 3-0, 4-0.
England are No. 1.
Every kind of spin not in the MCC coaching manual is mystery spin when described in the UK. There is a whisper that Pippa Middleton's former beau, Alex Loudon, had a doosra. But he's now working in the city, meaning that one day he'll end up back in cricket as a managing director.
The thing is, to the rest of the world, a delivery perfected in the '90s and around since the '60s, is not a mystery. It's a delivery. It's like a googly being called a mystery in the 1920s.
When England toured the UAE in 2012, Ajantha Mendis had been bowling the carrom ball for almost four years. Rangana Herath had bowled it more than 12 years ago. Jack Iverson played in 1950 with his carrom-like ball. Yet England were defeated by the mystery of a doosra in the UAE.
It was like dying from swine flu in four years' time. Or still collecting beanie babies.
Saeed Ajmal used this "mystery" ball to torment England. And there is no problem going out to him. Players the world over have done it. But saying it's a mystery, that's the odd part.
Ajmal is obviously a genius. His hands should be saved for future generations. He will end up in working in Vegas. But Abdur Rehman is just a spinner. Not in a bad way. But he's a normal human spinner to Ajmal's alien-lizard-spin-god spinner. Yet Rehman took almost as many wickets against the newly crowned No. 1 team. That was the real mystery. Not that Rehman took wickets, but that he destroyed England. That they continued to play him like he was bowling cryptic crossword grenades. Rehman averages 27.75 in his career; 30.47 in the UAE; and 16.73 in that series.
Then there is Mohammad Hafeez, who took another five wickets. The three of them took 48 wickets in three Tests. Pakistan won 3-0. England had been No. 1 for a few months and their first series back they'd been smashed by a genius of modern conventional offspin, a quickish left-arm orthodox and a part-timer taking all but 12 of the wickets available to them.
England swept , stood and theorised as Pakistan won all three Tests. In the second Test in Abu Dhabi, they needed 145 to win. They nearly got halfway there. Not a mystery, more a horror.
Ashton Agar was, had Australia named it as such, a flirt with a new era. The search for the magical teenager who could transport them back to the top. Agar was dropped after only two Tests. Now he's a Big Bash novelty marketing item who may one day come back.
To England he is much more. He was a major sign that thinking on their feet wasn't their strong point.
When England toured Australia, their menu made the media. It included superfoods like kale. Because when England do a team menu, they aren't talking food groups to look out for, or general cuisines their players might like. They are giving chefs every single food they want, how it should be cooked, what it should be served with. Other than a cutlery preference, there is almost nothing left to chance.
At the time, you could fit into two camps, the "look at these morons thinking quinoa will help them bowl" camp. Or those who said: "Well, it's a professional set-up, of course they monitor what their players eat, but do they have to be so extreme?" There is, of course, a third way of looking at it: that if England have taken away personal choices for players on meals to such an extent, what else is not in the player's hands? What other decisions that normal human beings make do English cricketers not have to make?
We know their strategies are devised for them. We know they are based on cricket sabermetrics that most of us will never understand. Video crunched into meta data and then fed to them on specially designed Swiss-chard forks. This is the data, now implement the code, bowling unit.
David Saker is not a coach of technique, he is a coach of tactics. The beer-swilling bogan outswinger with a bad temper who could have been something with the ball, but instead is something with a bowling attack. But David Saker and the analysts didn't have the data on young Ashton. He was at No. 11. He was a teenager. It was as if he had scrubbed all his private information from cricket's Google and was just a naked virginal elfin boy in front of them.
It took England all of 98 runs to work him out: 98 carefree runs. Every single one of them was a giggle for him and pure frustration for them. They had no plans, they had to bowl to him like you would in club cricket. Work him out just from how he batted. They could not. England's finest cricketers could not work him out and it almost cost them a Test match.
The Agar moment wasn't a one-off. There is no English fan that hasn't screamed at a ground, TV or radio for England to pitch it up. While attacks around the world have been bowling fuller and fuller, England have seemingly gone the other way. They've missed the good-length revolution and they continue with the lengths that just don't seem to work. It's hard to remember the last time they bowled fuller than their opposition.
Paul Farbrace said their plan to Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ravindra Jadeja after lunch at Lord's on the fourth day was to pitch it up. But their bowlers bowled short. With no analysis, they are no good. With analysis they are no good. And sometimes they decide not even to listen to the analysis and are just as bad. Clearly their food is not super enough.
Graham Gooch was the perfect man to talk about an epic innings. "To score runs like that you need attitude, you need good technique, you need knowledge and you need spot-on concentration." The innings was Hashim Amla's at The Oval.
In the past, England players had played innings like that. Jonathan Trott, Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen had all done it. But in the first innings of that Test, Cook made a hundred but then didn't get to the pitch of a drive. Trott played a lazy drive on 71. And KP was out-thought by Jacques Kallis the over before the new ball. It felt like an aberration. This was not how England had played to get to No. 1.
They would surely fix it and come back strong from their innings-and-12-run loss. But it didn't happen. Andrew Strauss' form had already been free-falling, now it was free-falling into an inescapable black hole. Cook didn't pass 50 again in the series. Trott made one more fifty. And KP played his innings at Headingley, then went to the after-match press conference and said it was "tough being me".
Pietersen did this press conference without his captain by his side. Which is very rare for an end-of-match press conference. It then turned out why when he was dropped for calling Strauss a "doos" on a text message to Morne Morkel. It was then whispered that KP had been unforgivably hard about James Taylor, England's debutant at Headingley. The dressing room had become an open book, a tacky romance novel. You could all but see the long-suffering Strauss being brutishly handled by the bare-chested Pietersen on the cover.
That all of this came in the series in which Hashim Amla made 482 serene, England-like runs just made it all the worse. England were upset with themselves. They were losing. And they weren't making big daddy hundreds. They were also no longer No. 1.
There should be no other emotion other than pure joy watching Tino Best bat. It's like a puppy with a squeaky ball. At Edgbaston there were lofted off drives, edges that went past hands, cover drives off the spinner, a straight six off the sightscreen and the odd wondrous hoick to wherever the ball wanted to go. At one stage he told Denesh Ramdin to bat for him.
Eventually Graham Onions took his wicket. But not before Best had made 95. Steven Finn, Tim Bresnan and Onions had been hailed as the great back-ups that proved that England were producing quality cricketers who could continue to move them forward when Broad and James Anderson retired. The machine was what worked, the cricketers were just fresh products for ongoing domination. Two years later Onions is being ignored, Bresnan has never got back to his best after his injury and Finn, well, Finn...
Finn wasn't ruined by Best. Despite the rumours, Finn wasn't ruined by any one thing. But he was in ruins.
Graeme Smith played a part. Middlesex may have done so too.
But none of them were in Australia during the Ashes. None of them were there while one of the most naturally talented fast bowlers on earth was decomposing. None of them were in control of him, or up against him, as he bowled for England against a collection of 2nd XI players in Alice Springs. Finn's bowling in Alice Springs was not first-class quality bowling.
It was as if Finn had done a brain swap with Simon Mackin. Mackin was a young, tall Aussie quick who had played not one first-class game at the time. He bowled the quick, hostile, clever spell, while Finn produced the spasmodic, random bowling of a club bowler who is not quite good enough. This was Finn who had been through every system, test, seminar, counselling session and analysis that England could come up with. And they'd taken him back to a state of a skinny, confused teenager. A skinny teenager with 90 Test wickets.
When Andrew Strauss was asked in a sweaty Galle catering room whether he was nearing the end of his career, it made everyone there feel very uncomfortable.
"Andrew, all of us in this room respect what you've done for England, but that is now four successive defeats. Have you taken this team as far as you can?"
You could hear each sticky intake of breath.
Strauss' team had become No. 1 only four Tests earlier. But England had lost all four and Strauss had made one hundred in his last 23 Tests. Strauss was respected as an Ashes winner, and as a batsman, but his batting had gone and his team was losing. The question shouldn't have been ridiculed or gasped over. It should have been the question that was being asked by England. They could have quite clearly decided that he should stay, but they had to ask the question.
Instead, Strauss would play for seven more Tests, make two hundreds, lose, win and draw a series, and lose the No. 1 ranking. Then he would leave.
There was always a saying that it was harder to get out of the Australia team than get into it. England could never be accused of that. But at the heart of their team, that special group of people who all get along so well, it is not easy to get dropped.
If we are to believe what the gossip and insiders tell us, Pietersen is the single-worst human being to put his pads on. Now, that may or may not be true, but Pietersen played over 100 Tests. Trott was an emotional wreck at the Gabba but, had he wanted to, he would have played in Adelaide. Matt Prior must have suffered one of the biggest form slumps in the history of wicketkeeping during the Ashes. He missed two Tests before he was straight back in like it was all a bad dream.
And now Cook. He is averaging 14.33 this year. His team has not won a Test in their last ten. Cook has said he wants to keep fighting and that he is not a quitter. He also said Matt Prior could go on as long as he liked minutes before it was decided otherwise.
England refuse to be honest with reality. They have built a team ethic, and they are desperate to keep it. So instead of one man going off a cliff, they all jump holding hands.
Read part two here