The Ashes 2013-14 December 17, 2013

Exhausted and broken

ESPNcricinfo looks at five reasons for England's failure to compete in Australia

Selection and coaching
When the England squad was announced, there was excitement over the inclusion of three unusually tall fast bowlers - Boyd Rankin, Chris Tremlett and Steven Finn - and the expectation that one or all could play a key role on Australian pitches offering pace and bounce.

But anyone who had watched county cricket in 2013 could have confirmed this was always unlikely. There was a mountain of evidence to suggest that Tremlett was not the force he once was and that Finn was enduring something of a crisis of confidence as he weighed up conflicting advice from county and international coaches. It was naive to think that an England set-up with little track-record of improving bowlers - James Anderson and Stuart Broad were international players before the current management took charge - could revitalise such players. It might well have proved helpful to have Graham Onions, the best bowler in county cricket over the last two seasons, on the tour to provide cover and balance.

Rankin may still prove a valuable player but he failed to shine in his few opportunities and, under the guidance of England bowling coach, David Saker, has regressed during the tour. Indeed, Saker's influence requires some reflection: to have failed to capitalise on the substantial talents of Finn is a major stain on his record.

Questions might be asked about Graham Gooch, too. There is little doubt that England have brought, give or take a name or two, their best batting line-up on this trip: the records of Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell will stand the test of time. They have proved they are fine players. But England are failing to maximise their talent. While the primary responsibility must always lie with the individuals, it is fair and sensible to raise questions of a batting coach who seems so unable to coax the best from talented players.

One man who could feel unfortunate not to make the tour is Nick Compton. He was dropped after two poor games at the start of the 2013 English summer - a decision that suggests cliques - but has continued to churn out runs in the county game. The last time England scored 400 in a Test, Compton and Jonathan Trott contributed centuries. His solidity and restraint would have been valuable.

The inclusion of Jonny Bairstow is also questionable. He appears, through no fault of his own, not to be trusted with bat or gloves by the management. So why bring him?

Losing Trott
The departure of Trott disturbed England. It was not just the absence of a top-order batsman, a vital buffer despite his drop in form, but the sight of a friend and colleague in obvious distress shocked the dressing room and disrupted the equilibrium of those left behind. All the planning, all the attempts to create a calm environment were dashed in that moment. England have never recovered.

Mental and physical overload
Trott's descent into exhaustion may be extreme, but it is not unique. Several other members of this squad have progressed further down the same road than should have been allowed. A combination of a reliance upon a few key players in all formats and the ECB's schedule - a schedule that prioritises income above a duty of care to their most important assets - has asked too much of too few.

Since December 2011, no one has faced more deliveries in international cricket than Cook, with Bell and Trott also featuring in the top five. In the same period, no seamer has bowled more deliveries than Anderson or Broad and only R Ashwin has bowled more deliveries than Graeme Swann as a spinner. That is despite Swann undergoing surgery and missing games with a variety of injuries.

But it is not just the quantity of cricket that England have been playing. It is also the environment in which they travel and train. The intensity of the England set-up has done nothing to dispel the pressure that can build up over time with the many virtues of Andy Flower - the attention to detail, the drive - slowly becoming vices as they are repeated over a long period of time without levity. It may be no coincidence that three of those who have fared best in this series are the three that have most recently come into the side: Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Michael Carberry.

Somewhere, somehow, England forgot to enjoy the journey.

Batting and fielding failures
It may seem odd to lump these two aspects of the game together, but the failures in both may well have the same root: weariness and a lack of belief.

Fielding is often the barometer of a team's morale and England's in this series has been poor. By the time Australia declared in Perth, it had sunk to the level of appalling. England's inability to take their chances in the field reached its nadir in Adelaide when an opportunity to dismiss Australia for around 350 was punished ruthlessly and fatally.

The batsmen have failed to score 400 in an innings since March, 22 innings ago, with Stokes the only centurion in the series so far. The failure in England's top order simply exposed a soft middle to lower order before the tail were blown away.

The domestic system
It is no coincidence that, when the England side enjoyed its best years, it was on the back of a sharp improvement in the standard of county cricket. The move to two divisions, the introduction of promotion and relegation, the appearance of strong overseas and non-England-qualified players heralded a particularly competitive era in the county game, with the likes of Justin Langer remarking that it was as tough domestic cricket as he had experienced.

But the ECB could not resist tinkering. It brought in young player incentives, tightened work-permit criteria, took the best players out of the county game for reasons as diverse as Lions matches, rest and gym sessions and created a schedule that squeezed the County Championship into the margins of the season. Furthermore, it allowed games to be staged on homogenised slabs of mud which bear little resemblance to those on which international cricket is played. Many of the initiatives were well intentioned but nearly all of them have backfired.

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    George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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