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Champs today, chumps tomorrow

Alastair Cook hooked and was caught at long leg PA Photos

Gutless, spineless, clueless, cowardly, stupid, scrambled minds, send them home.

I am, of course, referring not to players but to those critics who think that every mistake that happens in sport reveals a cowardly soul lurking underneath. Sport is more complicated than brave men against weak men.

There has been a rush to explain England's disastrous two Test matches in Australia in terms of morality. That is the easy way of talking and writing about sport. Retain the adjectives, just swap over the proper nouns. Here is a template. It is easy to adapt, and can last several decades of use with a little tinkering around the edges:

"The fractured, divided and self-absorbed Australia/England team (delete according to whether you are discussing this Ashes series or the last one) have proved woefully incapable of showing the guts, fortitude and will power to match the ruthless, united and courageous team spirit of England/Australia. Sadly, England/Australia give the impression of being more interested in money, glory and fame than in putting their bodies on the line for their country. There is a clear lack of leadership from Clarke/Cook, and one senses that old wounds have not properly healed between key senior players. If this is the best XI wearing the three lions/baggy green, then one wonders about the moral collapse and decadence of a once proud old/young nation."

Job done. Save as a Word document and just remember to delete "England" or "Australia" given the state of the series, everything else stands. Sadly, as a casual explanation of why England won 3-0 at home and now trail 2-0, it does not advance the story very far.

Let's start with the charge of moral cowardice. I have increasingly lost confidence in the concept of a "bad dismissal". That is because I am yet to see a "good dismissal". I accept that running down the pitch with your eyes closed, holding the bat by the toe and trying to hit the ball with the handle - well, that is a bad dismissal.

But most dismissals - nearly all of them - only have any meaning when placed in their proper context. And I don't mean the old clich of "the match situation". I mean the context of the batsman's whole career record of playing that shot. David Gower scored several thousand Test runs playing majestic cover drives. He also got out numerous times doing it. To argue the dismissals were "soft" while believing the runs were "invaluable" is simple contradiction. He could not have scored the runs without risking the dismissals. It's a question - all taken together - of whether Gower playing cover drives was a better bet than a potential replacement doing something else. And, of course, Gower was the right choice.

"Moral courage is not revealed in the nature of mistakes but in their frequency - or, more accurately, in the case of good players, the infrequency of mistakes"

During his Ashes-winning innings of 158 at The Oval in 2005, Kevin Pietersen played a series of risky hook shots against Brett Lee. In a way, he was forced into it. When he tried to be defensive, he looked like getting out any moment - so defensiveness was not a rational strategy, let alone a brave one. So he took a risk. And top-edged and was dropped. Then he did it again. And the ball just made it over the ropes for six. And then again. Coward/hero, fool/champion, disgrace/legend.

It is the same tribal fan - and the same polemical columnist - who shouts "hero" more loudly than anyone when a six is scored, and then chants "villain" more loudly still when the same shot lands in the fielder's hands. What a champion to take on the bowler! What a fool to take such a risk! The inconsistency here is not the batsman's, it is the spectator's.

Moral courage is not revealed in the nature of mistakes but in their frequency - or, more accurately, in the case of good players, the infrequency of mistakes. Alastair Cook's career average on the hook shot is well ahead of his (healthy) average for all the other shots. Yet, by the laws of statistics, even high-percentage shots occasionally cause dismissals. Yes, it looks bad when you get out hooking. But the wider point is lost: even to save a game, batsmen must play some shots to keep a modicum of pressure on the bowlers. Given that I am not a trained psychologist with access to hundreds of hours of private conversations with Cook, I am not in a position to judge whether his Adelaide hook shot was caused by "the pressures of captaincy" or whether it was a statistical inevitability following a long sequence of (mostly successful) hook shots. But I can guess with some confidence it was the latter.

That brings me to the wider argument. The moral dimension of "bad dismissals" is always invoked. Never mentioned is a subtler moral failing. Imagine a sports match as two old-fashioned armies meeting on a battlefield. Their purpose is to advance. When the front lines engage, the direction of travel will be determined by tiny acts of skill and bravery.

Surveying the melee from the sidelines, it is all too easy to ridicule the errors that catch our eye - the maverick who has broken ranks, the vainglorious solo charge. But the battle is really won elsewhere. Somewhere on the front line, an infantryman inches a foot closer to his ally, hiding his own shield slightly behind his friend's. Hence one man becomes fractionally safer and more protected - but if the action is repeated a thousand times, the army as a whole becomes significantly smaller and weaker. No one individual can be singled out as a hopeless failure. But the whole group suffers a collective diminution.

So it is in cricket. First slip inches behind the wicketkeeper to make it less likely he will drop a catch - simultaneously narrowing the cordon as a whole and making the opposition batsman safer. An opening batsman fails to hit a half-volley for four because he is too cautious: an opportunity missed to be brave because he has failed to exploit an advantage offered to his team. After all, a few good shots could have knocked the bowler off his length. A fingerspinner who doesn't dare to give it a proper rip because he fears being hit for six: he is allowing the opposition army to inch forward every ball. A swing bowler who doesn't attack the stumps but settles for the safe option of pushing it wide of off stump: he is allowing the opposition to settle in and become comfortable on the battlefield.

Critics delude themselves that the only form of bravery in batting is survival. Yes, no batsman ever scored runs from the pavilion. But I have seen countless teams imperceptibly yield an advantage - through timidity, through fearfulness, through the desire not to stand out for the wrong reasons - an advantage that they never subsequently reversed. Once the whole army is retreating, even the bravest soldiers can fail to hold the line.

And so it has been with England on this tour. So in place of "out-fought", "out-toughed", "out-machoed", "out-sledged", "out-hungered", I have a simpler word: outplayed.

I arrived in Australia this week to commentate on the Ashes. I've been chatting to some legendary Australian cricketers of the 1970s - when men were men, moustaches were mandatory, and Jeff Thomson bowled like lightning. These are not the types to excuse softness in anyone. Yet they've told me that Mitchell Johnson has been bowling awesomely fast, by any standards. And the pitch in Adelaide, though placid, was slightly uneven in bounce. Enough to make it very challenging from the perspective of simple technique, let alone bravery. "I wouldn't have wanted to duck due to low bounce," one ex-player told me, "but standing up and playing carried serious risks too. All round - pretty bloody difficult. I'd have rather faced Lillee!"

No one said Test cricket should be easy, of course. But the central truth about this series so far is that extreme pace - as it often has in Test history - has exposed weaknesses that would have otherwise survived unobserved.

It is one of the great themes of history. Ask any real leader - from business, sport or the military - to explain his success. There will be a smile of recognition (assuming he has a brain, that is) and a nod of acknowledgement. He will know that had circumstances become fractionally more difficult, had the enemy been one degree more imposing, then all his best-laid plans could have been blown away.

In separating sportsmen into two distinct and permanent categories - winners and losers, tough men and cowards - we not only miss the subtlety, we miss the whole truth.

For England, one comfort remains. This England team, for all its achievements, has never quite captured the public imagination. When they have won, it has been with measured professionalism not memorable daring. As a result, they have felt more respected than loved.

Well, I have good news for them: turn this one around, and they'll never have to worry about a lack of adulation again.