They say misery loves company, and I’m glad to see I wasn’t alone in being caught flat-footed when, buoyed by England’s performance that first day of the Gabba Test, I saw a fourth consecutive Ashes win for England as the most likely outcome. In my defence, I didn’t get as carried away as some: no 5-0 predictions from this quarter (oh the irony now as regards that particular score!), and I did caution a wait-and-see approach with England’s batting.
Well, wait-and-see became see-it-and-weep. Five Tests; five inexplicably shambolic, humiliating defeats. The casualties included those who left (Jonathan Trott), those who retired (Graeme Swann), those who failed (Matt Prior) and those who were never selected (Steven Finn), or selected and then dropped (Chris Tremlett), despite being part of a much-trumpeted plan involving 6-feet pacemen and bang-it-in bowling. It usually helps if, on the abandonment of one plan, you have another to back it up, but England made the same old mistakes match after match while, as that old chestnut about insanity goes, expecting different results.
Now, the finger pointing has begun, with Andy Flower giving his usual opaque interviews and Alastair Cook resembling a deer in headlamps rather than a leader of men, without a clue as to where England have gone wrong, and short of ideas on what to do about it.
Some in the media have decided once again that Kevin Pietersen’s head is protruding too much above the parapets; a poppy still too tall and in need of pruning despite being England’s top run-scorer. Pietersen’s failure in this series might be thrown into greater relief considering he is on a different level, talent-wise, to his teammates, so it becomes more obvious when he falls below those lofty standards, but the vendetta against him has become tedious and predictable, and in this case downright puzzling since he doesn’t seem to have done anything to merit being made a scapegoat. One could forgive him for concluding there are easier ways to make a living, and should he decide to nail his colours to the T20 mast as international gun-for-hire, we can look forward to a dour, joyless period of English cricket unenlivened by the flashes of brilliance he has brought to the game, punctuated by painful references to “rebuilding”, “hard yards” and “things getting worse before they get better”. Shoot me now.
Pietersen is an easy target, and one can only conclude Andy Flower’s supposed ultimatum that either England’s best batsman goes or he does (something Flower has denied) has been engineered to blow up into this big media shitstorm in order to draw fire away from everyone else in the England setup who failed abysmally Down Under. If this is the case, it seems to have backfired, with public opinion coming down largely this time on the side of Pietersen. As Pietersen might say (to paraphrase WG Grace): they come to watch him bat, not Flower coach.
From a team that managed to rebuild after the shambles of 2006-7, reaching number one in the Test rankings and master of all it surveyed in Australia in 2010-11, to a side that is now turning on itself, caught in a trap of dour unimaginative mediocrity and seeing no other option but to gnaw its own limbs off to get free, it’s been a dramatic and sobering come-down.
To think one series could lay waste to a legacy. All the guff about team spirit that first reared its head the last time Team England fell out with Pietersen looks especially hollow now. We saw in the summer all the cracks in the things that were really important, such as England’s inability for a long time now to post a big first-innings score, the over-dependence on Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad to pull them from the fire, the fact England are an ageing side on the way down while Australia are climbing in the other direction. And make no mistake, the Australia England faced this time around were an angry Australia, stung by a 3-0 series defeat in England where they knew there were chances they could have seized but perhaps did not then believe they could. One thing that should have provided a clue that England were heading for one hell of a wake-up was the fact they saw winning at Brisbane as a real possibility. Visitors rarely win at Brisbane; Australia have not lost at the Gabba for twenty-five years. And while England were rampant on the first day – hell, even I started to have hope – the carnage of the afternoon session on the second day put paid to that, with Mitchell Johnson charging in like some moustachioed demon of almighty vengeance to reduce England’s batting to 94-8 at tea. Having been lulled into a false sense of security by toothless bowling in the warmup games, England had no response to this 94mph blitzkrieg, and after that there was no coming back. A reward for their hubris, and an end to an époque not quite so belle.
I can’t see that any good will come from this, regardless of who goes or stays. Flower as always plays his cards close to his chest; the deep thinker has now become the inflexible martinet. If he should go, it seems likely Ashley Giles, current limited overs coach, would take his place. England’s ODI side too is in a state of rebuilding (oh, for a side of eleven Paul Collingwoods) and it’s too early to say whether Giles could fill Flower’s shoes at Test level. Indeed, a series win for England in the forthcoming ODIs would hardly feel like consolation at all.
The future for England isn’t all a dark, howling void. Ben Stokes, unfettered by pressure, expectation and the international grind that has worn his teammates down, in particular gave England fans something to cheer about. England could do worse than look at India for an example of a side that’s managed to rebuild after the retirement of its ageing superstars with charismatic and combative young talent.
There is light at the end of this tunnel, but they will need Pietersen – who can still put runs on the board and bums on seats, and, more importantly, has the analytical nous to work out exactly where England are going wrong – to help them find it.