Australia v England, 2nd Test, Adelaide, 2nd day December 6, 2013

Battle-weary England slide again

England look jaded, joyless and over-reliant on tired players who have too many miles on the clock; it is hard to avoid the sense that their time has passed

As surely as day ebbs into night, so England's grasp on the Ashes urn is loosening by the session.

Yes, England are only one down with three-and-a-half Tests to play and, yes, they have earned through their achievements the respect not to be written off just yet.

But it is increasingly hard to escape the feeling that an era is ending in English cricket. The issues that have been masked by individual excellence for some time can be hidden no more: England look jaded, joyless and over-reliant on tired players who have too many miles on the clock. It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.

It is hard to pinpoint the moment the music died for this team. Was it during the batting debacle of Brisbane? Was it when Jonathan Trott became the most obvious manifestation of burnout and left the tour? Was it here, when Michael Carberry summed up a wretched fielding effort by putting down a simple chance off Brad Haddin, or when Australia's No. 10 swung the finest spinner England have produced for decades for successive sixes?

It says much about England's performance in the field that the finest catch of the second day - an excellent, jumping one-handed effort plucked out of the sky - came from a member of the media beyond the midwicket boundary and not from any of the team. No bowling attack had ever conceded so many sixes in an Ashes innings and it is very hard to recall an innings where England squandered seven chances in the field.

So it was all those moments and more. Certainly the wonderful batting of Michael Clarke on the second morning here and the vast improvement in the performance of an Australia team that looked hapless only months ago is relevant. The manner in which they snatched this game from England's grasp was deeply impressive; the positive cricket they played backed up much of the bold talk they have made in recent months. They deserve all the praise they will receive.

While in 2010-11, the tone was set by the run-out of Simon Katich in Adelaide, this time England made basic mistakes. If fielding is the window to the soul of a team, England are in trouble

But it was also the scheduling that saw England obliged to go straight from a Champions Trophy final into an Ashes series; it was the seeping weariness of asking them to play back-to-back Ashes series with all the attendant hype and hyperbole; and it was the relentless demands of a treadmill that sees them regularly play more Tests than any other side in the world, alongside an increased priority in limited-overs cricket. The ECB, desperate to feed a business model that may well not be sustainable, has asked too much of its most precious assets.

England have been running on empty for some time. They looked jaded going into the 2011 World Cup, as they did when touring New Zealand at the start of 2013 and throughout the Ashes in England. Perhaps partly as a result of the somewhat intense environment in which the England team operate, there appears to be a lack of levity to relieve the tension. All those night in hotels - anything up to 260 a year - all those big games, all those media conferences and public appearances, have taken their toll. The ECB has been to the well too often.

There are other factors that have weakened English cricket. The decision to rid the domestic scene of non-England-qualified players and offer young player incentives saw a generation of experienced professionals replaced by kids who should have been forced to work harder for a career in the game. The turgid pitches that proliferate in England bear little relation to those found in the international game and the introduction of Lions games during the English season have further diluted the standard of domestic cricket. The gap between the county and international games has grown dangerously large.

The bowlers will attract criticism after conceding such a vast total. It is true, certainly, that there is a worrying theme among them to lose pace the longer they are exposed to the England set-up. Certainly the inability to exploit the vast potential of fast bowlers like Steven Finn reflects poorly on the coaching staff. He has regressed since his elevation to the Test team.

But the England bowlers also suffered from a pathetic level of support from their fielders. While some of the missed opportunities were tough, there was a general sloppiness to England's fielding - including Ben Stokes taking a wicket with a no-ball - that was unrecognisable from the side that won here in 2010-11.

While in 2010-11, the tone was set by Trott's run-out of Simon Katich in the first over of the Adelaide Test, this time England made basic mistakes. So Carberry fumbled a simple run-out and Monty Panesar, ridiculously, found himself at long leg as England attempted a hook trap. If fielding is the window to the soul of a team - and it very often is - England are in trouble.

Whatever happens in the future, it should not detract from the achievements of the past. This team have, by England's standards, enjoyed levels of success not matched for decades. Several of them, and their coach, Andy Flower, will surely be remembered as among the best to have represented England.

But all things must pass. And the increasing sense of recent months is of a team, well past its best, desperately trying to cling to the past. The performances of experienced players - the likes of Matt Prior, Alastair Cook, James Anderson and Graeme Swann - have all dipped by a small degree and there is little evidence that all the millions invested in academies and youth teams and coaching structures have created the requisite competition for places.

And that is England's real problem. For these are, give or take a player or two, the best England have and they are capable of much better. But they are weary and spent with ingrained exhaustion and institutional weariness. Against a resurgent Australia team, they are struggling to summon the strength for another fight. It may be a battle too far.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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