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George Dobell at Adelaide Oval
December 9, 2013
'Worst England performance in a long time'
The lips said one thing; the eyes quite another.
Alastair Cook, as is his way, led from the front after England's harrowing defeat in Adelaide. He faced the media with the same undemonstrative determination with which he faces the new ball. He didn't shirk or make excuses. He never does.
He spoke well, too. He spoke of fight and belief. He admitted faults and accepted responsibility. He was deeply impressive.
But the eyes told another story. They told a tale of shock and disappointment and pain and exhaustion. They suggested that even he didn't quite believe what he was saying. Amid the call to arms was the unmistakable hint of doubt. Cook has an innate honesty that would render him a hopeless politician.
"We've been outplayed," Cook said. "We haven't played very well. You can't get away from that. It's hurting us like hell. It's certainly not impossible [that we can retain the Ashes]. A lot of people will probably give us no chance. But if we don't believe that in our dressing room, if we believe the urn has gone, then it might as well have gone.
"Do we have the will? It's a good question. Sometimes, when you haven't been playing well, that's one thing you start looking at: whether we do have that. I can only say, from speaking to the guys, and watching them - how much this is hurting - that we do. Only the guys will know that inside themselves. But I honestly believe we've got that.
"Self-belief is certainly an issue you need to make sure you look after when you've lost heavily in two games. If we don't believe it, then no one else is going to believe it. That's the simple deal. We've got to look deep into our souls, deep into our hearts, and turn it round. We can't mope about giving it the 'poor me'. It's whether we can drag a performance out of ourselves. We've got players who have scored a lot of runs, players who have taken a lot of wickets. We need to stand up and do that."
It does not help that Cook's own form is poor. His record suggests - it all but insists - that he will find a way through the mire, but England - feeling the loss of Jonathan Trott as a building misses a supporting beam - can afford no delay. And he knows it more than anyone.
"I need to score more runs," he said. "We all do. But there are only so many times you can tell the lads to do it. And if you're not doing it yourself, it makes it harder.
"I'm there at the top of the order as a batter and in the last two games I haven't been scoring enough runs. I need to go and change that. You can get good balls sometimes as an opener, and you can play poor shots. In this game I've got a good ball and played a poor shot.
"There are some very tough moments for the captain and we're in the middle of one. We're 2-0 down and I'm responsible as the captain for that. I'm leading the troops out there. It hits you hard."
England veered off course in this game long before they batted, though. By squandering several chances in the field - it is hard to recall a worse fielding display by an England side in the last decade - they wasted the opportunity of bowling Australia out for around 350. From then on, they were tired, dispirited and frustrated. Punch drunk, perhaps.
"On a good first-innings wicket, we created some chances and we didn't take those chances. Australia have been very clinical in taking every chance that has come to them. We haven't done that. We let them off the hook and they punished us very heavily.
"Quite clearly getting bowled out for 170 wasn't good enough. And there were some poor shots in there as well. We have to be honest with ourselves."
It is hard to be optimistic for England. The next Test is in Perth, where their record is so grim that the squeamish should look away now: in 12 Tests at the ground, England have lost eight and won once. That was in 1978, when Australia were forced to field a virtual second XI due to World Series Cricket. Since 1991, England have lost all six Tests at the venue.
"Our record there is of total irrelevance to this team," Cook said. "We have to go there as this side in 2013 and deliver something very special, otherwise we're not going to do what we've come to do."
Following their media responsibilities, the team had a long meeting in the changing room at the ground. It must have smarted that, even while they were picking through the bones of the most wretched England performance for several years - in other defeats, the batting has been at fault; here all three facets of the game began to crumble - they could hear the team song echoing from their Australian conquerors.
The atmosphere in the England dressing room was later described as "honest." Suffice to say, there is more than a little anger and frustration that, even in the second innings with a Test to save, four batsmen fell to hooks or pulls, one more hit a full toss to mid-on and not one was dismissed by a delivery that would have hit the stumps. England's batsmen are making life much too easy for Australia's bowlers and not giving their own a chance.
England were woeful on the final day. They could have tried to keep Australia in the field in an attempt to tire their bowlers ahead of Perth. They could have tried to occupy the crease with a view to the rain saving them later in the day.
Instead they thrashed around in a display of macho posturing that proved nothing about their ability to withstand the short bowling they will continue to be tested by this series. Some cheap runs were scored. Some cheap wickets fell. It was no consolation.
But there are, if you look hard, a couple of areas of encouragement for England. Most of their top-order have shown that they are capable of withstanding the barrage - Michael Carberry, Ian Bell, Joe Root and Kevin Pietersen and even Cook have made half-centuries - and the bowling has remained respectable if impotent. If they can hold their catches and string some individual scores together, there is plenty of room for improvement.
But his tour may well be remembered as a bridge too far for this England team. Flogged to exhaustion by a cricket board whose obsession with the bottom line has obscured the damage they are doing to the long-term future, several of this team have arrived with too many miles on the clock. Graeme Swann and James Anderson, The Age revealed, have bowled more deliveries in Test cricket than anyone in the world since the start of the 2010-11 series. Sometimes it shows.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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