Monday, January 6, 2014

The Ashes reviewed.

There have been few sporting contests predicted to be closely fought that can have ended so one sided as when England were almost humanely, quickly put out of their abject misery inside three days at the SCG. There has been much strong language and hyperbole used but quite simply England were pathetic.

Much of this however is to Autralia's dis-credit, as Richie would have said, they were quite simply 'marvellous'. They fully deserve all the plaudits coming their way. And more so because this is far from a great Australian team.

When I was present at the '06 whitewash, the names were absurdly good. Hayden, Ponting, Gilchrist, Warne, McGrath, everyone knows the iconic line up. England had lost Vaughan, Trescothick and Simon Jones and Flintoff and Harmison had tuned out. 5-0 was horrible but almost understandable.

This team however is great because it is more than the sum of its' parts. Clarke and Harris are world class, Johnson has been inspired and the likes of Warner, Rogers, Haddin and Smith have batted like trojans.

You can tell when a team is benefitting from playing like one. Nathan Lyon is a prime example. Such has been the hostility being rained down from Harris, Johnson and even Siddle that the England batsmen simply queued up to play shots against Lyon and get the hell out of Dodge. 19 wickets at 29 and change, thank you very much guys.

All around the pitch, the players have fed off each other's performances. Lehmann was much maligned for a lack of a scientific approach but he has galvanised a spirit that has taken full advantage of Mickey Arthur's approach work.

Mitchell Johnson's rehabilitation has been incredible. Let's remember he didn't even feature in this Ashes double header before Brisbane. Many comments had people never wanting him near a Baggy Green again. 37 wickets at a whisker under 14, nothing else to say really.

The question about Johnson was just how much of his performance was down to England offering no contest? Johnson can be unplayable but he is fragile and has been taken on many times before. Nothing should be taken away from his performances but Smith, Amla, De Villiers and co won't run scared so easily. Fantastic performance regardless.

Harris at the other end was also immense, strangling the run rate with Johnson much as Gillespie and McGrath in tandem at their peak did. He is a truly world class performer. Get him well rested up, he is a true weapon.

The batting was good but chinks in the armour remain. Steyn, Morkel and Philander will offer a far stronger examination (admittedly Zimbabwe would probably be tougher than England right now).

In David Warner, Australia have finally found an attacking opener to fill the void left by Matthew Hayden. Whilst not as dominant or destructive as the big Queenslander, Warner has proven to be a fine player since he was reintegrated to the side and should expect to be a mainstay.

Chris Rogers' age unfortunately means he is already towards the end of is career but he has been an excellent foil for the pugnacious Warner and finding (in time) a steady opening partner (much like Langer was to Hayden) for him could give Australia a strong opening platform for some years.

Watson again flatters to deceive and whilst he remains a solid enough option, a longer term no3 solution may need to be found. Clarke will be the no4 for as long as his back holds out. Whilst the Ashes were still being fought for he was superb only tailing off in the dead rubbers.

Steve Smith has most definitely come of age and with Haddin in the form of his life, if a solid no6 could be found then Australia have undoubted depth to their batting line up again.

The bowling attack has been much vaunted and with other seamers in reserve, Australia look in rude health in that department. Nathan Lyon has proven more than capable of holding down an end, the bowling looks in good nick.

Should Australia do as they have done in the past and press on from a winning position and find fresh talent then their future looks infinitely better than it did just six months ago. The players should be commended for a fabulous effort.

England however are in ruins and deserve to be shipped back home, not flown. Cook denies that they simply gave up but what other conclusion can anyone come to?

I have been present in person at many England debacles in Australia dating back to 2002 but the SCG on Sunday was a new low.  To be bowled out in less than 32 overs when all the England faithful were asking for was to at least go down trying was just the final insult.

Alastair Cook must take much criticism. Both on and off the field, his almost laissez-faire attitude to both his batting and his admission and explanation of the team's performances has simply not been good enough. Like the majority of the senior players, Cook has projected an image of a man who would simply be rather hiding in the pavilion.

Whilst Cook clearly has to stand up for his team publicly, his down playing of just how bad England have been borders on the insulting to the fans. England were not just beaten in every test, they were thrashed. Even at Melbourne with the series already gone, England took a winning position and contrived to be soundly beaten by Australia. The captain must take responsibility.

The coaching staff must also accept huge blame. How could they completely miss Jonathan Trott's state of mind? How could Graeme Swann be talked as a match winner only to be accepted as ready for pasture after the WACA?

We are continually told that Graeme Gooch is a wonder batting coach yet England's batting has been abysmal since Steyn and co took England apart over eighteen months ago.

Then there is the curious case of Steven Finn who's participation on this tour was precisely zero. Finn it should be remembered bowled in the first test back in England and has done nothing since. Why was he even here?

England decided Finn was too big a risk at either the Gabba or at Adelaide. After that England were in tatters, undone by pace and aggression from Australia, and we headed to the WACA. A pitch that holds demons for England.

Harris and Johnson were unleashed against England and whilst Johnson didn't do quite the predicted damage, Australia were rewarded again for their bowling aggression. Finn can be expensive (so can Johnson) but he is a huge man and bowls at 90mph. He is a true strike bowler.

England reverted to Tim Bresnan now shorn of what pace he had due to injury instead of Monty Panesar. Bresnan should have replaced Graeme Swann and Panesar either kept or replaced by Finn. Could Finn really have done any worse than the rest?

Bizarrely, the 29 year old Boyd Rankin - a so so ODI player at best - was brought in to the slaughter at the SCG. We are told constantly that Finn is a work in progress with huge potential. Rankin is a better long term prospect than Finn? I would wager decent money that Rankin never plays another test for England and what little confidence Finn ever had has been entirely destroyed.

Aside from Cook, what of England's senior players? KP looks more and more whimsical as to his contributions. He often threatened during this tour but always disappointed. At the SCG he was appalling. How long is he for the test world? No one can be sure.

Bell started promisingly and it may just be that he became disillusioned with the abject failure around him, either way it was not good enough.

The less said about either Matt Prior or Graeme Swann the better. At least Prior had enough self respect and manners to stick around and carry out 12th man duties, he may come again.

Broad and Anderson are England's new ball pair and whilst neither can be proud of their performances, both at least competed and kept going with Broad in particular being able to walk away with his reputation only lessened slightly.

Of the younger players, only Ben Stokes did anything to enhance his reputation and the no6 slot looks his to lose now. He at least showed some heart and simply did the basic things well such as getting bat on ball. His bowling was a welcome plus point also and he was England's player of the tour.

Michael Carberry was always a short term answer and Nick Compton must be wondering exactly what he has done wrong. We were constantly told how well Carberry left the ball but he seemed to leave quite a few that didn't leave his off stump alone.

He also played ludicrously defensively in relation to his natural game. Admittedly he hasn't faced Harris and Johnson before in front of a screaming Aussie crowd.

We are also unsure as to where Joe Root goes from here. He is clearly young and talented but so we were told was Johnny Bairstow. Root has played only two truly quality innings in these ten Ashes tests, Lords and Adelaide and the reality is there was a reason he was dropped for the SCG. Root is no longer a rookie and he needs to start scoring runs soon.

Monty Panesar is not the solution for England in terms of replacing Graeme Swann, he simply does not have the character nor the athleticism to compete effectively in test cricket. For Borthwick, mastering the art of wrist spin at test level may be a bridge too far.

Cook has said he wishes to carry on and to be honest there is no real alternative to his leadership. Cook however needs a change in mindset and needs to start scoring runs again if he is to become an effective captain and leader.

Andy Flower has taken many plaudits for England's success and he must therefore take much of the blame for such abject failure. His lack of humility and acceptance of any blame has been hugely disappointing and one must wonder about his commitment to the cause (other than the pay packet) given the rumours of his leaving ahead of this series regardless.

England must obviously not press the panic button but much needs to be remedied quickly. What is concerning is that once they regroup, this coming Summer on green English pitches and cool weather, they may be good enough to beat India who never travel well. That would paper over cracks as big as on the day four pitch in Perth, England must not be fooled.

Days two and three in Sydney were just abject. Such was the one sidedness, it even filtered into the crowd who were very subdued - other than the constant flurry of wickets - with even the Barmy Army finally succumbing to the malaise.

The last words however should be reserved for the victors who have been truly superb. Congratulations to Australia, worthy winners of this Ashes series. It was men against boys - No Nonsense.