Australia is never an easy place to win a Test series. Historically, this has been particularly true for England but with a resounding success for England in the home Ashes series, and with English victory in the last Ashes held down under in 2010/11, England were expected to triumph fairly comfortably. Speculation was rife amongst pundits of the chances England winning 5-0 (although most of this talk resembles nothing more than ‘Ashes banter’). As we know now, these predictions were wider than Steve Harmison’s delivery in the First Test in 2006. The question is: where did it all go wrong for England? By Philip Mansell.
England’s defeat in the First Test in Brisbane was a sign of things to come, with early England bowling dominance leading to stubborn resistance from Australian wicketkeeper Brad Haddin and the bowlers. After England finally knocked over the Australian tail for 295, they then succumbed to the brutal pace of former- laughing stock Mitchell Johnson, all out for 136. This became an all too familiar tale for England in the remainder of the series. In the Third Test in Perth, England had Australia 5-143 but could not press home this dominance. In the Fourth Test at Melbourne, Australia were 122-6 but battled to 204. England scored less than 200 in 6 of their 10 innings.
Jonathan Trott left the tour after the defeat in Brisbane with a stress-related illness. Whilst unavoidable, this created a new question for England; who should bat at three? Many saw it as a choice between Ian Bell and Joe Root, whose natural position is opening the batting. This was taken into consideration and Root was selected, impressing with a gutsy 87 in the second innings at in Melbourne. However, come the final Test Root was replaced by debutant Gary Ballance, with Ian Bell moving up to fill the no. 3 position. Wicketkeeper Matt Prior’s dire form saw him replaced by Jonny Bairstow for the final two Tests, but even he clearly has huge technical flaws which need working on, both with the bat and the gloves.
The bowlers were in OK form for most of the series, but were hampered by both the aggression of Australian batting, and the inability of England’s batsmen to give the attack a sufficient rest between innings. Graeme Swann hastily retired after the Ashes were lost in Perth, and his replacement, Monty Panesar, struggled in Melbourne before being dumped in Sydney for Scott Borthwick to come from relatively nowhere to make his England debut. Whilst he is a decent bowler, he batted at 3 for Durham in their Championship winning season in 2013, contributing far less with the ball. Fast bowler Boyd Rankin came in for the last Test as well and it was quite evident that he was not fit, having suffered a back spasm the night before the match started. The chopping and changing of the bowling line-up is reminiscent of Australia last summer, and exemplifies a dressing room low on confidence, but also one that is in a state of flux.
Coach Andy Flower has confirmed his desire to continue in the role, as has Captain Alastair Cook. Calls were being made for both men to resign before the series had even ended, and have only intensified in recent days. It has been reported that Flower had placed an ultimatum at the hands of the ECB, stating that Kevin Pietersen, England’s top run scorer in the series with 294, should be dropped. Either that, or Flower would resign. This has been denied by Flower, but has only served to create further questions with regards to the harmony of the dressing room. Pietersen, 33, was criticised in the series for giving his wicket away, but many have come to his defence. Put simply, he is the most charismatic and destructive batsman English cricket has ever had, and has the highest Test batting average and highest number of Test runs in the current side. If an ultimatum has actually been made, then that is bizarre, and surely Flower will be the one to go. Until anything is confirmed, a rather large pinch of salt is required when reading into this issue.
If Flower does remain, he will undoubtedly see over the most fundamental overhaul of both players and coaching staff of the England cricket team in recent years. Long term replacements are required to replace Jonathan Trott (whose absence could be permanent) and Graeme Swann. Michael Carberry did not completely convince at the top of the order, but may get a chance to impress in the summer. However, at the age of 33, he may not get long. One shining light was Durham all-rounder Ben Stokes, who was brought in from the second Test onwards. Whilst there is clearly much work left to do with Stokes, he impressed with a determined 120 in Perth, and took 6-99 with the ball in Sydney. Gary Ballance, whilst scoring only 18 and 7 on debut showed a level of composure in the middle that could see him persevered with. It is likely that Borthwick and Rankin, the other two Sydney debutants, will return to County Cricket before having another run in the England Test side. Whereas in recent years England Test sides have picked themselves, the 11 men that will be selected to play Sri Lanka on the 12th June are largely anyone’s guess right now.