Ashes: England pay for failure to put Australia to the sword
What a difference four days make. Before the last Ashes Test began in Perth in the early hours of Thursday morning, journalists in England and Australia were queuing up to salivate over the unprecedented strength of the England cricket team, whilst circling menacingly like vultures around the rotten, broken and beaten Aussies.
After England’s crushing defeat in the third Test was confirmed on Sunday morning, the press were similarly quick to back-handedly reinforce their original conclusions: England had failed due to complacency, not through want of superior talent, and class would surely out over the next two Tests.
Refreshing though it may be for our quintessentially downbeat cricket press to continue to back Andrew Strauss and co, almost unequivocally, the Ã¢â‚¬Ëœcomplacency’ line masks harsh realities. England failed to win the Perth Test because, in many ways, they are simply still not good enough.
Despite the occasional on-the-field barb from Jimmy Anderson and interview bluster from Strauss and Kevin Pietersen to the contrary, England still lack that killer instinct; that real mean, spiteful hunger to crush an opponent without mercy.
The Adelaide Test served notice of their ability to show this cold, calculated desire to win on occasion. England played almost perfect cricket, aided and abetted by an Australian team in disarray, and won handsomely. However, this was an exception to the rule.
Even on the current Ashes tour, England have, on several occasions, proved themselves too able to lose concentration and lack a penetrative thrust in crucial situations – as well as highlighting that fragile self-belief remains a perpetual malaise.
When Strauss won the toss on a fine, clear morning in Brisbane and chose to bat on a beautifully flat wicket, England’s tailenders should have been sitting with their feet up while the top order ruthlessly batted the Aussies out of the game by tea of day two. Instead, the captain lasted three balls and the team were brushed aside for a woefully under-par 260.
In Perth, with Australia flagging at 69-5 and 137-6 in their first innings on a green deck with the conditions encouraging late and devastating inswing to the right-handers, England should have made their superiority count. Instead, a couple of particularly loose spells from Steve Finn – who still looks too raw at Test level – and a lack of discipline from the rest of the England attack apart from Tremlett meant Australia recovered to post a defendable 268, but also crucially allowed Ponting’s troops to rebuild their fractured morale.
Two insipid batting collapses at Perth might have confounded those who had watched England reach 517-1 at Brisbane and 620-5 at Adelaide, but are symptomatic of a team who are unpredictable, and whose apologetic braggadocio barely masks a confidence that can crumble at will.
Fifty-one all out against a mediocre West Indies side at Jamaica in April 2009 and collapsing from 194-3 to 222 all out in losing against a Pakistan team they had been dominant of at the Oval earlier this year are stark examples. Meanwhile, who can forget England succumbing to a disgraceful 102 all out in on the first morning of last year’s Headingley Ashes Test, before Australia made 445.
England are certainly not the abject band of ramshackle part-timers they often appeared in the dark days of the mid-90s. However, nor are they a team anywhere close to the great Australian team that dominated that period and much of the 00s.
Lacking a natural match-winner in their seam attack of the ilk of the erratic but occasionally brilliant Mitchell Johnson, England rely on strong performances throughout the team, with tight bowling partnerships working over a batsman. Without Broad they have lost a measure of control, but they still have the tools capable of knocking over the Australians, provided everyone pulls their weight, and the team is prepared to go for the jugular.
We will be given a telling insight into the character of this England team with how they perform in next week’s Melbourne Test. Should they harness the same powers of rejuvenation which saw them comfortably dispose of Pakistan and Australia in the Tests which immediately followed the collapses mentioned above, then the Ashes will be returning safely to England – locating their killer instinct will be the vital ingredient in putting the Australians’ Ashes hopes to the sword.