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England's second-innings resistance should not mask the need for change in the team; the only question is whether Andy Flower is the man to lead it
George Dobell at Adelaide Oval
December 8, 2013
Polite Enquiries: What is the point of Dharmasena?
Had a wedge-tailed eagle settled on top of the England dressing room ready to pick at the carcass of the team, the signs could not have been more obvious: for much of this match England have looked spent, broken and shattered. For the Ashes, at least, the party is over, the song is sung, the jig is up.
Statisticians will tell you that England can still win this series. But statistics also suggest the average person has one breast and one testicle. You have to be a bit careful with stats. The unavoidable impression you have when you look into the eyes of several of this England team is that the belief has gone. It followed the fun out of the dressing room door.
England were actually quite a lot better on day four of this match than they had been on the previous three. They fought, they applied themselves and they utilised a pitch that remains slow and decent for batting, to register their highest score of the series. But the Titanic probably bounced a little when it hit the ocean floor: it wasn't cause for celebrations on the poop deck.
Still, their increased resilience did provide a reminder - if any were required - that many of these players remain more than capable of prospering at this level. England may require a period of reflection and rebuilding, but there is no need to throw away all the blocks of their fairly recent success.
Kevin Pietersen provided just the contribution England required from their senior pro. Refusing to be lured into the trap set for him at midwicket, he played admirably straight and allowed himself time to build an innings. He made a point of playing those straight deliverers he has been flicking to midwicket to cover and he pulled out of hook strokes despite getting into position to play them. It was just the sort of restrained effort he should have made in the first innings.
'We're up for a fight' - Root
More than that, he supported Joe Root through some flighty moments and, when he felt the sledging of his young partner was becoming too much, he stepped in to ensure the focus shifted on to him. Eventually Peter Siddle exposed a technical flaw - it was the ninth time Siddle had dismissed him in Test cricket - but there could be no faulting the effort.
Root showed courage, application and a strong technique in compiling what may well have been the best innings of his career to date. He flirted outside off stump a few times and still looks far more comfortable on this sort of slow track than the one he may encounter in Perth. But he is 23 and learning his trade. This was an innings that largely vindicated Andy Flower's continuing faith in him as top-three Test batsman.
But what of Flower? He has been, without much doubt, the best coach England have had. He has led the team to, in England's relatively modest terms, a golden age that has included periods at No. 1 in the rankings in all three formats, a first global limited-overs trophy - the World T20 in the Caribbean in 2010 - and Test series wins in Australia and India. If that sounds modest to people in the Caribbean and Australia - who enjoyed sustained periods of success - you have to recall what life used to be like for England supporters. It was grim. It was relentlessly grim. Flower, from an England perspective, deserves the moon on a stick.
But can Flower do it again? Does he have the appetite or the wherewithal to stoop and rebuild with worn-out tools? There is little doubt that he will be given the opportunity by the ECB if he wants it - it seems unlikely that Paul Downton's first decision as new MD of England cricket will be to sack a coach with Flower's track record - but is he the man to reinvigorate a dressing room that may need a little less stick and a little more carrot?
It is worth reflecting on the side England selected when Flower first led them to Ashes victory at The Oval in 2009. It has changed remarkably little. Indeed, his first choice side would contain eight or nine players who were first choice then. Pietersen, who was injured, would be in and Jonathan Trott, who is absent now, would be in. Tim Bresnan also made his debut that summer.
But it is the absentees who are most interesting. Since that Test in 2009, England have lost Andrew Strauss as opener, Paul Collingwood in the middle order and a third seamer, who in that game was Steve Harmison. None of them have been adequately replaced. Since Trott came into the side, England have handed debuts to more than a dozen players and perhaps only one - Joe Root - has seized his chance. Flower has many skills, but building from scratch is not one of them.
It also seems legitimate to ask about the success of England's much-vaunted - and tremendously expensive - academy and development systems. For all the time and money invested in them, is the number of players coming through the system much increased or improved from the days England simply relied on the counties? Of course, the best facilities and extra development tours are of benefit but, here we are 10 years in, and where are the potential replacements for Graeme Swann and Pietersen, James Anderson and Trott?
There are doubts about the atmosphere in the England dressing room. While a coterie of experienced players have formed a tight bond - the likes of Alastair Cook, Anderson, Swann and Stuart Broad - is the England environment as welcoming and conducive to fearless cricket as it should be? Some of those who have been in that dressing room talk of a stifling atmosphere. They talk of tension and fear and cliques. Perhaps they were the ones at fault; or perhaps it really wasn't so easy being Pietersen in there for a while.
It might rain on the last scheduled day of this game. The Test could be drawn. The series even. It seems unlikely, but England could escape. Then they could, in their own conditions, flourish in series to follow against Sri Lanka and India. They could kid themselves into thinking that nothing needs to change.
But that should not - must not - mask the evidence of what we have seen in this series to date. England have a serious issue against pace, are over-reliant on a few individuals and are no longer performing at anywhere near the level they once did. Change is necessary.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
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