Australia v England, 1st Test, Brisbane, 2nd day November 22, 2013

Familiar tale from shell-shocked England

England's first Test collapse has has become a recurring failure and one that should be keeping Andy Flower and company awake at night

When does a string of aberrations become a pattern? When does a blip become the norm and when does continuity of selection become rigidity of selection?

These are the questions England need to answer after a painfully weak display of batting left them requiring something approaching a miracle to avoid defeat in the first Test of the Ashes series.

On a pitch that remains sound and true, England collapsed from 82 for 2 to 91 for 8 in a session that brought back memories of the dark days of England cricket in the late 1980s and 1990s.

There are, as ever, some excuses. First and foremost, they came up against a fast and unpredictable left-arm bowler who rattled them in a hostile spell of sustained fast bowling. Mitchell Johnson deserves great credit for this.

England might also point out that rain has robbed them of time in the warm-up games and training sessions and that both Kevin Pietersen and Matt Prior's preparations were somewhat disrupted by injury. It is true, too, that this pitch was some way quicker than anything they experienced in the recent series in England.

But most of those excuses are pretty thin. It's not as if they could not have been predicted. It's not as if England have not faced Johnson before or as if they have no experience of these conditions. They knew what was coming and, by the evidence to date, had either not prepared adequately or failed to execute those plans.

Nor is it the first time they have started series with a poor batting display. They have failed to reach 400 in the first innings of their last nine Test series - a run that stretches back to the start of 2012 - and on five of those occasions have failed to reach even 200. If an event keeps occurring it cannot be described as a one-off. It has become a recurring failure and one that should be keeping Andy Flower and company awake at night. This has been, for several reasons, an accident waiting to happen.

On paper, this is England's strongest batting line-up for many years. Pietersen and Alastair Cook have scored more Test centuries than any men who have previously represented England and may both be remembered as greats of the game; Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott have averages in excess of 45; Prior averages in excess of 40. Each one of them have played top-class innings under pressure in the not too distant past. If there are better batsmen in England they have not made themselves obvious.

Yet England have failed to reach 400 for 17 Test innings - a run that extends back to Wellington in March - and several of their leading players - Cook, Trott and Prior in particular - are enduring runs of poor form too long for comfort and too long to be easily excused. It is no good living off past glories; Hobbs and Hammond have fine records, too. No-one would pick them now.

No expense has been spared in preparing this side. They have three batting coaches - Andy Flower, Mark Ramprakash and Graham Gooch - to work with here, they have brought in a couple of left-arm fast bowlers to face in the nets - Harry Gurney and Tymal Mills, who may well be the fastest bowler in England - to replicate Johnson's line of attack and they arrived in Australia four weeks before the Test series began. Some sides complete whole tours in that time.

The most galling aspect of this collapse was how easily England succumbed to Australia's plans. It took only two balls well angled across Joe Root to lure him into a horribly loose drive; it took only one spell of short bowling to have Trott, jumping around and playing almost exclusively to the on-side, caught behind. Pietersen flicked to the man placed for the stroke at midwicket and Cook, reaching outside off stump, soon nicked one angled across him. Wickets came far too easily for Australia.

But it would be simplistic to state that England were simply blown away by pace and bounce. Another nemesis also came back to haunt them: their weakness against spin bowling. On a day two pitch that remains utterly blameless, they made Nathan Lyon appear like Muralitharan on a dustbowl, with Bell and Prior departing to successive deliveries playing across balls that bounced and turned a little as if they had never seen an offspinner before.

Indeed, it might provoke England to reflect on the homogenised strips of lifeless sludge on which too much cricket is played in England. Rarely do developing players experience pitches that aid spin or pace in England, with far too much emphasis given to nagging seam and swing. It is a systemic failure that continues to hold back the international side. The pitch in Perth may be even quicker.

Equally, the ECB may reflect on the work permit regulations that they fought for and the central contract situation which has robbed the county game of many of the fastest bowlers. Even the absence of relatively obscure seamers - the likes of Johan van der Vath and Garnett Kruger - has limited the exposure of England players to the pace and aggression they can expect in international cricket. The gap between county and international cricket has grown considerably over the last couple of years.

Pace and bounce did not actually account for many of the top-order wickets. But it had left England rattled and it may well have resulted in their footwork being slower and their bats being less straight than they should have been. They looked, just as they had at Perth in 2010-11, more than a little shell-shocked.

History tells us that England can rescue themselves from this position. You only have to look at the Brisbane Test of 2010-11 or the Auckland Test of this year to see that. They are unbeaten for a year. But they have given themselves a mountain to climb here and, even if they do somehow salvage a draw - and with so much time left in the game, they may well need some help from the weather to do so - they will know that they have squandered a wonderful chance to take control of this series.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • James on November 23, 2013, 8:07 GMT

    The English are so arrogant and cocky that they are shocked this is happening yet it was plain to see that there have been chinks in their all along. The past 4 test matches Australia and England have played against each other, it's clear to see that Australia has looked the FAR better side bar a couple of days i.e the collapse at Durham.

    Something has gone amiss from this English side since Strauss retired. India was still filled with old players who were past it when you toured and they were much harder to beat when they got their new players and Australia went there.

    You still haven't recovered from Collingwood's retirement. That goes to show just how hard you will find it to replace the players you have now. Your new players are not as good as you think they are either. Root started well, but that was before other teams figured him out and made plans, not it's up to him to go to the drawing board. Past Anderson and Swann, you have Finn and Kerrigan, Ballance hasn't looked good.

  • Gary on November 23, 2013, 4:51 GMT

    I think it's the whole negative approach they take to batting. Ever since they got beat by South Africa at home they have changed there approach to batting. They are trying to grind out batting like Amla did to them. It must be obviously there game plan and it's killing they team. Have the batting line up are not playing there natural game. Tbh they were lucky to escape with a drawn series in nz last winter. And were really unimpressive at home. And they will lose this series if they continue to play like this. It's obvious they have gone backwards since playing like this.

  • Dummy4 on November 23, 2013, 2:17 GMT

    Yes, England were shocking in their first innings, and yes, MJ was amazing and he deserves to stick two fingers up to those that doubted him before this test. As we know England never start well overseas, and I think Australia will win this game. BUT... there are only 2 bouncy wickets in Australia, Perth being the second. That gives England 3 flatter tracks to nullify MJ's bounce, and also it goves Swann a chance to show why he's the best spinner in this series. Having said all that, well played Australia so far, you have certainly shut up most of the one sided English cricket fans on this website.

  • Andrew on November 23, 2013, 0:05 GMT

    Well said xtrafalgarx, Ian Chappell, Mark Taylor and Shane Warne have been saying exactly the same thing on the Channel 9 commentary. England tried to play their game of attrition, but to win in Aus you need to be aggressive. With the bounce/grass on the pitch you will eventually lose a wicket (unlike the wickets prepared in England). Also agree with Aparajitha Sataluri, Johnson was very dangerous in India on lifeless wickets, he spent a couple of months working with Dennis Lillee and his pace is back - his main weapon. Johnson is also married and has a child which makes a big difference - everything pales into insignificance when that happens (which Johnson has noted). He lit up the Gabba & there is no greater sight in Test Cricket than a genuine quick - which are why Tests are still the most exciting form of the game (best for bowlers)

  • Dummy4 on November 22, 2013, 23:55 GMT

    @everyone - the point of commentary is to comment on what is happening right now not reflect on records, look a the bigger picture etc etc. Everyone on here who says "look calm down - just one days play - bla bla" is missing the point. When a batsman gets out you jump up and cheer and send him on his way, or when he hits a six you stand and clap. You dont say oh well, doesn;t hit many sixes so that did't happen.

    This article is perfectly sound for today - tomorrow it may smell. Who knows? Certainly not any of us or we would have better things to do than comment to each other

  • Dummy4 on November 22, 2013, 22:24 GMT

    England complacent and under-prepared? The real issue is that they have not yet discovered the location of the magic cave despite Andy Flower's best efforts. If they don't find it, they will sure lose!

  • Fergus on November 22, 2013, 21:59 GMT

    The averages may look good on paper but ALL batsmen nowadays have inflated averages (~10 runs in many cases) compared to the 80s and early 90s due to the lack of true pace bowlers and neutered pitches. Johnson is quick but nothing exceptional - however many batsmen now seem incapable of dealing with this.

  • Tim on November 22, 2013, 21:22 GMT

    Front foot lunch - enjoy those series wins, it will be the last for a while. the urn will be coming home and the era of Aussie dominance will begin again. We will get a couple more years from these bowlers before cummins, pattinson, and starc reign their terror on batsmen for ten years.

  • Dummy4 on November 22, 2013, 21:00 GMT

    Its hard to understand the lack of critical self-analysis displayed by the English batsmen. Cook KNEW they would bowl full outside off, Trott KNEW they would bowl at his body, Bell KNEW they would bring the spinner on, etc. The failure to work on their weaknesses that were displayed in the last Ashes series displays either a spectacular arrogance or a real lack of self-awareness.

    What is even more hard to understand is that the English fans seem to think that an easy 5-0 victory is coming their way. Australia didn't bowl particularly well today with the new ball but were still able to knock over the opposition for a sub-par score. Time to face facts, this series is evenly poised between the two sides and will be a tight contest on the field!

  • Patrick on November 22, 2013, 21:00 GMT

    Apparently the plan is to wear down England's bowlers. If they can manage this the Ashes are back. Even more than the batting collapse, these things happen sometimes, the response of the bowlers was the big deal. They looked like they'd given up already, like a team of prima-donnas, especially Anderson, who do well when things are going there way but can't fight there way out of a paper bag. They'll win a few more games here and there with their talent but there are clear signs that this lot is on the way out.

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