DÉJÀ VU – ALL OVER AGAIN
I expect every one of us felt the same, as Rory Burns shuffled across his crease for the first ball of the Ashes series to have his exposed leg stump removed by Mitchell Starc. Here we go again, just like that infamous opening ball of the 2006-07 Ashes series, bowled by Steve Harmison…straight to second slip. That ball set the tone for a disastrous winter for the England team, just as Burns’s first-ball duck has set the tone for this one. Déjà vu, all over again.
Of course one ball does not a series make. But it is remarkable how quickly things unravelled on both tours following those two unpropitious starts. What has been depressing this time around is not so much that England have been so outclassed and so comprehensively beaten but that the mistakes, both in preparation and execution, have an all too familiar ring about them. It was Albert Einstein who uttered this self-evident observation: “Insanity – doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result.” England – or those responsible for the planning and performance of the England team – made much noise before setting foot on Australian soil about the weeks, months, years even, that had gone into preparing for this Ashes series. At the time, I thought it was all so much hogwash, cliché and commonplace pitched for the rapacious interests of press, media and public. One by one, players and coaches were wheeled out to assure us that no stone was being left unturned in the quest for the Ashes.
In point of fact, these pre-series pronouncements were no more than empty banalities. Imagine the two field marshals, Napoleon and Wellington, being interviewed on television before the Battle of Waterloo.
“So, Your Imperial Majesty, how do you see tomorrow panning out?”
“Eet iss a – ‘ow you say – un doddle. Wellington ees a bad general. My artillery shall pound ze Eenglish and zen I shall order ze Grande Armee to advance to crush ze enemy. Vive la France! Vive l’Empereur!”
“Sir Arthur, the French seem pretty confident of victory tomorrow. How do you intend to stop them?”
“See that ridge over there? I shall conceal my forces behind that and when Bonaparte attacks, he shall get a surprise when they all stand up and pour volley after volley into his massed ranks. Of course the battle won’t be won there. We shall retire into our defensive squares and the enemy will exhaust themselves trying to break them. Hopefully, our boys can hold out long enough for my old friend and companion –in-arms, General Blucher, to arrive with his Prussians to complete the rout of the Frogs. By the way, what’s the weather forecast?”
“Heavy rain overnight, Sir Arthur.”
“So much the better. Boney’s artillery will be less effective on sodden ground. He might even delay his attack for things to dry out, giving the Prussians more time to arrive.”
“Thank you, Sir Arthur. And good luck tomorrow.”
“Thank you. I can tell you it will be a damn close-run thing tomorrow. If we are victorious, you can tell your viewers that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”
So, no – best not to take any notice of fine words and best-laid plans. Why reveal to the enemy in advance how you are going to play, even if you do have a team good enough to carry out those plans?
In point of fact, an England team has rarely been so unprepared for an Ashes tour as this one. To a certain extent, Covid and the rigid restrictions imposed by the various regional governments of the country impeded England’s practice schedule. All they could do was have a few rain-interrupted days of intra-squad practice games while their Australian counterparts were engaged in meaningful Sheffield Shield matches. But the short-sightedness of English cricket stretches back to our previous summer and the hopelessly imbalanced schedule of white and red ball cricket, the foolishness of which has been, on more than one occasion, highlighted in these blogs. Just one example – the most glaring, I admit – of an England tourist being undercooked is Jack Leach. Last summer, he played in just one first-class match. For the rest of the time, within England’s bio-secure ‘bubble’, he was on continual duty as drinks waiter, reserve fielder and net bowler. And yet he was expected to land it on a sixpence when called on to bowl in the first Test of the series, with hungry Australian batsmen eyeing up the long-on and long-off boundary behind him. What sort of planning went into that? What sort of thinking was taking place about England’s spin options?
Actually spin option and England selection policy are rarely aligned, so much so that at times, England go into a five-day Test without a spinner. Either they consider spin to be superfluous or they don’t rate the calibre of the current bunch. That is a fault of the authorities. They have to ask themselves why the selectors eschew spin (a failure of imagination) and why there is a paucity of decent spin bowlers in the first-class game (what do you expect when you shove four-day cricket to the margins of the season, in spring and autumn, when seam is king?). The same chaotic structure of English cricket handicaps the batsmen.
They have forgotten – or at least have fallen out of the practice – how to bat for long periods of time. All this betokened trouble even before the team boarded the plane for Australia.
Without picking Hindsight in my team, I did wonder at the selection choices. No Broad at Brisbane, where he has a good record? No spinner at Adelaide? Instead, five right-arm, fast-medium bowlers, a tactic that the England management had criticised on previous tours and vowed never to repeat.
Old truisms ought not to be abandoned simply because they are old. Tradition dictates a properly balanced side should contain five batsmen, five bowlers and your best wicket-keeper. Ideally, the attack ought to contain two spinners, though in Australia perhaps one will suffice. If one of your bowlers can bat, so much the better. Good all-rounders are like gold dust. (Stokes, incidentally, is clearly not match-fit.) If your wicket-keeper can bat, the runs accrued are a valuable bonus. England’s best wicket-keeper is Ben Foakes. Where is he? I have always been an admirer of Jos Buttler as a batsman. But the experiment of his taking the gloves must end. His drops have been costly.
In the final analysis, England’s batting has fallen short. You cannot plan for batting collapses. You can, by shifting the balance in the English cricket season from white to red ball cricket, improve a mind-set - but we all know that will never happen. All we can hope for is a more disciplined display in the remaining Tests, more fight, more guts, more bloody-mindedness – and that includes fielding and catching.
Two Tests lost with barely a whimper. It has become a dispiriting habit for England teams to get off on the wrong foot at the start of a series. On this tour, both feet have got in a tangle. Bad planning, unwise selection, misguided tactics and rank poor cricket have left this team with nothing to fight for but their pride. A 0-5 whitewash doesn’t bear thinking about.