You can sympathize with England’s coaches, especially Andy Flower. He was the greatest batsman his country’s ever produced, ranked number one in the world and one of the finest batsmen of his generation. Dedicated, hard-working, diligent, the product of the graft he put in to the game. Sounds very much like his deputy Graham Gooch, although Flower is also renowned for his impeccable character: principles as rigid as his backbone, standing up to the dictator who destroyed his country and suffering permanent exile as a consequence. Their approach to their own games was also very similar – if it’s not working, the answer’s to work harder. If it still doesn’t work, harder still. Failure is your own fault.
How must he have felt, watching his team capitulate so miserably in the Ashes? He can’t go out and bat for them. He can’t take the catches they’re dropping. He can’t stop them bowling long-hops all the time. He’s worked himself towards an early grave to give his team the best preparation he can and then they let him down like this. Look at his eyes; like pissholes in the snow.
Flower deserves immense credit. In the midst of grief it’s sometimes hard to remember all the good times, but we must try. Flower took on the England job with the team in disarray. The 2005 side which had threatened to be the best in the world was in tatters. The coach and captain had just been fired and they were being beaten by the West Indies. He took them from that desperately low ebb to number one in the world, won three Ashes series on the bounce, defeated India home and away, and turned them in to the most professional team England’s ever had.
Coaches have a shelf-life, though, even the best of them. Perhaps the more exacting the standards, the more they achieve, and the harder the fall. Think of Woodward’s rugby side. Flower’s regime has felt like the dying days of Thatcher’s government for a while, trying to recapture success with increasingly bold but ill-conceived plans while not acknowledging the elephant in the room. Time will give us more perspective – and I suspect the rot set in a long time before we realize – but he’s started to come down on the wrong side of too many big decisions. Here are a few key indicators Flower’s lost his touch:
The Trent Bridge pitch was known to be dry, slow, and low, favouring spin and reverse swing. The two favourites for the third seamer spot were Finn, a tall fast bowler, and Bresnan, a much shorter, slower bowler but a great exponent of reverse swing. Flower chose Finn, who was almost entirely ineffective on the dead surface. At Lord’s, a much faster, bouncier pitch – and Finn’s home ground – Flower chose Bresnan. Australia’s batting collapsed four times in two matches, but the mistake almost threw away the first Test.
When Strauss retired at the end of the 2012 season, at least a year earlier than expected, England suddenly needed an opener. The management had had their eye on Joe Root for some time but the word was he wasn’t quite ready, so it came down to a toss-up between Carberry and Compton, with Compton having the stronger claim. He didn’t set the world alight in India, but he did all right and gave England the solid starts they needed in very difficult circumstances. When he went to NZ, much more natural conditions, he proved himself to be a very capable accumulator, but after only a couple of poor games was dumped in favour of Joe Root.
You can see how it happened. From the moment he walked out to make his Test debut in India – top scoring and securing the historic series win – to the moment the Ashes started, Root looked born to it. He danced on the pitch and scored all around the wicket, he adapted instantaneously to an Indian Test match or a NZ ODI. He made his maiden Test ton at Headingly, and followed it up with a big hundred captaining the Lions. He was the image of a young Michael Vaughan…only better.
Compton was a thirty-year old journeyman, and you don’t get back to number one with journeymen, but they will do a reliable job for you. When governments start dying one of the symptoms is they take bigger gambles to reclaim the glory years. Flower’s first was Root. He was too young and it was too early, but Root was touched with greatness and it was the gamble that would put England back at the top.
Ryan Harris, however, was a different prospect. Opening the batting seemed to bring a weight to Root’s shoulders he never had before and the carefree grace and free-flowing shots disappeared. Harris mercilessly and expertly examined his technique and it was found wanting. He scored 180 at Lord’s, but the rest of the series hardly troubled the scorer. His whole approach as a batsman changed. Well before the end of the series it was clear he belonged back down the order to recapture his touch. The top order was killing him. Of course, jettisoning Compton meant Flower needed to bring in Bairstow at 6. The net result was removing two players who were succeeding and replacing them with two who were failing.
We all make mistakes. Skip forwards a few months, though, and England suddenly needs a number three to replace Trott. KP is firm at four, which left Bell or Root. Bell, approaching a hundred Tests and coming off the best series of his career, having completely dominated the Australian attack, openly asking to be promoted to number three…or Root. Flower picked Root.
We all make mistakes, but putting Root back to the top of the order with the very real evidence of what had just happened wasn’t a mistake. It was doing the same thing again and expecting a different result. It was almost as if it had become an article of faith – to go back on it would admit a mistake, a rare personal chink. Root now looks broken, people are wondering if the the golden haired Michael Vaughan was a figment of their imagination.
The 2013 Ashes was dead as a series after the crushing win at Lord’s. Australia was 2-0 down after two, and no one comes back from that. It wasn’t a normal series, though, because we were going straight from the Oval to play the return leg in Australia. Despite being 3-0 down, Australia was getting their tails up under new coach Lehmann and was starting to believe they could beat England, but after three series defeats and not a single Test win in nearly a year, they were prone to collapse at any moment and their confidence was never far from going the same way as their batting. The Oval was England’s chance to put the boot on the throat and leave them in disarray before Brisbane. Watson and Smith at least can’t have been more than an inch from being dropped, so instead of finishing them off, as Australia would have done, we picked two unprepared debutantes, one with the yips, fed them both centuries and, in the process, massively boosted Australia’s confidence.
As Ian Chappell wrote before the Gabba Test, from the way everyone in Australia was talking you would have thought it was England who’d been thrashed all year and Australia who’d just beaten them 3-zip.
The Waca. Fastest, bounciest pitch in the world. England was 2-0 down and this was no time for being cautious. Fight fire with fire. Other than Broad, England had three fast bowlers around 6’8”. This is what they had come for. This was their moment. Unleash hell.
So Flower picked Bresnan, a short medium-pacer who was previously considered unfit to play.
If the three high-towers were really so unfit to be picked (and judging by Rankin’s eventual performance they were) what have they been doing on tour all winter? What’s been going on in the nets? If you don’t pick those guys at Perth you’re never going to pick them, so why are they there at all?
2013/14 Ashes selection
Before the Sydney Test Darren Lehmann was explaining why Watson was unlikely to play if he couldn’t bowl. He said, unless you had a Shane Warne in your side, it was unrealistic to expect four bowlers to take twenty wickets week in week out. Flower, of course, has stuck to this rigidly for years, despite England’s best attack in living memory being five strong. Likely as a result, Anderson has looked completely buggered since Lord’s. Always being thrown the ball when England needs a breakthrough, the workload’s become too much. At the top of his game, like Botham before him, he’s won Tests in Australia, but not in that state. To succeed in Aus without genuine pace you need to be in exceptional form. To go with Anderson and Broad, Flower and the selectors chose Tremlett, Rankin, Finn, Bresnan, Swann, and Monty. Let’s think about that for a second:
Two years ago Finn led the attack in an ODI series in India and even on their dead tracks looked like Jeff Thompson at the Waca. They were jumping, ducking, taking balls in the ribs. He had extraordinary pace, bounce, and seam movement. He was incredible. He was one of the few bowlers in the world who could bowl at 95mph. But what the hell have they done to him? He hasn’t featured in the series and has now been sent home early.
Bresnan was already injured and wouldn’t be fit until the third Test at least. Swann, it turns out, had not recovered from his elbow surgery and was a punt at best. His understudy, Monty, was having severe personal problems and wasn’t even playing for his county. Tremlett, surprise hero of the previous away series, had been injured virtually ever since and had only just returned, half the bowler he was before. And Rankin. Bloody hell, Rankin. I don’t like to be unkind but it’s hard not to in these circumstances. Let’s just say he’s a big man, but he’s not in good shape. When he finally got a game at Sydney he looked awful in every respect. He bowled slow wides both sides of the wicket, then pulled up with cramp and went off for half the day. When he returned, he bowled one ball and left the pitch again with severe cramp. He looked shocking, like Angus Fraser after a night with Richard Harris and Keith Moon. A vet would have put him down. How did they think they could win with a bunch of bowlers who were neither fit nor in-form?
One can’t help but think it was a case of hope over expectation, trying to recapture the magic of 2010/11. Graeme Onions was far and away the leading domestic bowler of the year but didn’t get a look-in. Personally, I doubt he has the pace (or the support) to have made much of a difference, but at least picking the leading bowler is backing form over faith. If you take your best players and they don’t succeed, fair play, that’s cricket – our best against your best. Taking this group of bowlers was like buying a lottery ticket to pay your mortgage.
Compton, like a spurned lover, was left at home, never to be mentioned again.
The wheels have fallen off. It’s time for a change. The batsmen are batting ten or fifteen runs below their career average and can’t make big scores, the bowling coach seems to have taken the best young bowler in the world and made him unfit for club cricket, the fielding – once England’s strongest suit – wouldn’t look out of place in a park. Most of all, they look miserable. Something’s gone wrong and it needs to change.
With great regret, it’s time to say goodbye…