Australia fall short on coaching front too
This Ashes series has exposed the huge gulf between the expertise of the England and Australia coaching staffs. Andy Flower's meticulous campaign has his men purring while Tim Nielsen's home side has spent most of the summer praying for a handful of guys to cover up a glut of mistakes.
The stark reality is Australia have been out-batted, out-bowled, out-fielded and out-thought for most of the campaign. Playing strength is obviously the main reason for the result, but the combatants are groomed by the head coaches and their bulging batch of assistants.
Flower, a hugely respected former Zimbabwe batsman, appears like a Godfather over the England side, working out his strategies and speaking simply and sternly. Nielsen is more like a mate to the Australians than a task master, a friend on the training paddock and a sounding board, rather than a master tactician or disciplinarian.
Since being defeated in the 2009 Ashes, the Australians have beaten West Indies, a questionable Pakistan outfit at home, and New Zealand away. In the past six months there has been a drawn campaign with Pakistan, a 2-0 loss to India and now this fumbling Ashes show. Australia's summer began with a seven-match losing streak across all competitions and so far the only international successes have been a dead-rubber ODI win over Sri Lanka and the dead-cat bounce in Perth.
Changing personnel and under-performing leaders have contributed heavily to the results, but the coaching staff has been unable to provide much measurable support. Under Nielsen there is the bowling mentor Troy Cooley, the batting assistant Justin Langer, the fielding coach Mike Young and the analyst Dene Hills. Stuart Karppinen, the fitness and conditioning coach, also has a first-class bowling background.
In this series Australia have only three batsmen averaging more than 25 and one of those is the No.7 Brad Haddin. The elite run-makers have failed mostly due to sub-standard techniques against fine opponents, and ignoring basic rules like not following the ball on seaming pitches. It was particularly costly at the MCG, and would have been fatal if it wasn't for the brutal reply of Mitchell Johnson at the WACA.
The bowlers have been unable to hold a teasing line for long periods, which is essential against accumulators like Strauss, Cook and Trott. Their only sustained success is starving Paul Collingwood, a small trophy. Ryan Harris, who is out with a stress fracture, and Peter Siddle are averaging in the 20s while Johnson (35.09), Hilfenhaus (73.50), Shane Watson (87.00) and Doug Bollinger (130.00) have been much less effective during the entire campaign.
England's attack has been able to mix discipline with potency and its back-up men have starred when required. Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan fitted in perfectly when called, while Bollinger was simply unfit when promoted for Adelaide. The punishment didn't last long and he is back for Sydney.
Costly chances have been dropped, such as the misses by Haddin and Michael Hussey in Adelaide, which followed the stunning efforts of England in the opening hours of the game. The tourists are in such good shape that they were also able to drop two catches early on the first morning at the MCG and still dismiss Australia for 98. The local ground fielding has been sloppy and the hosts have no run-outs compared with England's three. Watson has been involved in two of those, but both times Jonathan Trott's throws were sharp enough to take advantage of the lapses.
Haddin, who has done a lot more keeping than his counterpart, has 43 byes for the series next to Prior's 14. Nielsen is a former wicketkeeper so he spends hours with Haddin, who still struggles with his footwork. While he can take spectacular diving takes down the leg side, he is not a natural gloveman and misses more simple offerings. He didn't even go for an edge in Perth that went between him and Watson at first slip. There are also times when Haddin doesn't bother trying to intercept wide leg-side deliveries, even when he should be expecting them from Johnson. In the fifth Test he is the vice-captain.
If these basic skill issues stand out for spectators, then how are they not being identified and fixed by the professional coaches? Outside the team Nielsen is nicknamed "Teflon Tim" because none of the criticism of the side sticks to him.
Nielsen has been in the job since replacing John Buchanan in 2007, when Australia were the best in every format but Twenty20, and keeps gaining new contracts despite not having any major trophies since beating South Africa early in 2009. (Australia won the Champions Trophy later that year but it has become a minor tournament.) Before the summer his deal was extended to after the 2013 Ashes series. Nielsen has never been part of a side that has won the urn, overseeing the 2009 and 2010-11 campaigns in which the same mistakes have occurred under pressure.
After the Melbourne defeat, which ensured England retained the trophy, he was pressed on whether he was doing a good job as coach. "I'm probably the wrong person to ask in some regards," he said. "It's hard for me to sit here and say I'm not doing a good job -- I believe I am. I believe I'm doing everything in my ability with my staff and the playing group to perform at the highest level that we can."
In his public discussions Nielsen, 42, talks a lot without saying much. He likes players "to execute their skills" and perform in the "critical moments". There are "big challenges" in which the guys need to "maintain their focus".
Hard questions are usually laughed off, but this time he admitted to feeling the strain. "No doubt," he said. "When you're losing Ashes series you always feel under pressure. When you're losing Test matches, whoever your opposition may be, you feel under pressure."
He said he questioned himself "quite strongly" after the innings defeat in Adelaide. "Did our preparation give us the best chance of starting well and being in the game?" He did not provide himself with an answer.
Yet there is still a large element of denial about the strength of England and the weaknesses of his own side. "It was only seven days ago we were on top of the world and everything was going along swimmingly," Nielsen said. The last time Australia were No.1 was during the 2009 Ashes. They are currently fourth and have sung the team victory song only once in their past seven matches in whites.
"We understand that we've got some talented cricketers in our team but we didn't click as well as we would have liked in Melbourne," he said. There was no clicking either during the long days in Adelaide, Brisbane, Bangalore, Mohali and Leeds. In Perth there was the swing of Johnson and Harris, and the fine batting of Hussey to hang on to.
Those close to the team insist Nielsen brings huge value to the squad. James Sutherland, Cricket Australia's chief executive, is a strong supporter, believing in his technical knowledge and man-management abilities. Greg Chappell, the selector, took Nielsen on as an assistant at South Australia in 1999. When Chappell has been watching training over the past month he seems desperate to want to take over. There are experts everywhere but the success has disappeared. For so long the innovators, Australia are now battling to catch up.
Cooley was viewed as the greatest bowling coach in the world after 2005, but he might instead be one of the luckiest. His reputation was made while working with a wonderful attack that mastered the secrets of reverse-swing, something Cooley has never managed consistently with any Australian line-up.
After spending two weeks in the nets with Johnson, Cooley was able to make him purr for three days in Perth, where the breeze appeared more like the magic tonic than any technical tips. The bowling philosophies of David Saker, the ex-Victoria assistant who is now with England, impress gnarled former fast men and he has designed specialist strategies for each ground.
The next job for Cooley is the head coach of the Centre of Excellence, where staff have previously wondered about the praise he has gained for employing the same methods they all learned on the way through the training systems. Langer, a firm friend of Ricky Ponting, was catapulted into the batting role and has a simple philosophy for the run-makers.
"Focus on seeing the ball out of the bowler's hand and winning every contest," he told ESPNcricinfo in November. "If you do that enough the result looks after itself." People at all levels of Australia's set-up have taken their eyes off the ball.
Young, a former Australia baseball coach, was first employed under Buchanan but remains on a part-time contract despite the increasingly error-prone fielding displays. Fresh players, such as Phillip Hughes and Usman Khawaja, are not naturally athletic and need moulding quickly. Steven Finn, who is 21 and 6ft 7in, bent low for a stunning caught-and-bowled at the Gabba and then outlined how he practised the low takes at every session because that's what he needed to do to be an elite fielder.
Hills wasn't allowed to take up his job as the video analyst until the second Test in Adelaide because he had spent a couple of seasons working with Flower on England's performance programme. There were initial fears from England that he would pass on secrets. They needn't have worried.
In their current state, the Australian players are having too much trouble surviving to be able to enact detailed plans. England, who have retained the Ashes, enter the final Test of the series with a 2-1 advantage and the rubber could still be drawn. But the difference between the outfits is huge, both in the middle and in the nets.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo