Australia must aim for higher feats, whilst for England the postmortem begins…
As the famous line by Norwegian football commentator Bjorge Lillelien goes;
“Lord Nelson! Lord Beaverbrook! Sir Winston Churchill! Sir Anthony Eden! Clement Attlee! Henry Cooper! Lady Diana! Maggie Thatcher – can you hear me, Maggie Thatcher! Your boys took one hell of a beating! Your boys took one hell of a beating!” – Perhaps similar words could have been used by a member of the Channel 9 commentary team to describe the way Alastair Cook and his men fell from grace in their recent Ashes campaign.
Looking at the Australians to begin: First and foremost despite a series of hugely impressive performances across the five Test matches they must not get ahead of themselves.
Despite their undoubted success, they must note that their top order batting collapsed in four out of the five first innings during the series with Brad Haddin and the lower order often rescuing the situation – to which their bowlers could take full control of the match.
Walking to the crease at the fall of the fifth wicket, Haddin was faced with totals of 100, 257, 143, 112 and 97 – hardly promising starts by the countries five best batsmen.
Thanks to the amazing consistency of Haddin the team were able to eventually post first innings totals of 295, 570, 385, 204 and 326 – enough to outscore the feeble English batting on this occasion but harder challenges await…
Looking forward to next months three Test tour of South Africa, it is very unlikely the Proteas fast bowling trio of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander will be so forgiving in their own conditions as the jaded Englishmen were Down Under.
Doubts certainly remain over the top and middle order batting and the selectors have taken the decision to drop George Bailey from the number six position and instead include both the uncapped Tasmanian Alex Doolan and the returning number three Shaun Marsh. Bailey has failed to push on and make the spot his own despite being given the full Ashes series to do so. After making starts in a lot of his innings and blitzing James Anderson for a joint Test record of 28-runs in an over at the WACA, his series stats of 183 runs at 16.14 across eight innings hardly jumped out as being Test match quality.
Doolan was named in the squad for the final Test as cover for Shane Watson and he has remained the “next cab off
the rank” in term of selection for the imminent South African tour. The selection of Marsh is a much stranger inclusion. The 30-year-old has had an ordinary Sheffield Shield season for Western Australia thus far with just 275 runs at 34.37 and has had past opportunities to claim a long term spot in the national side.
Despite a hugely impressive 141 on debut in Pallekele two-and-a-half years ago, Marsh struggled to do his undisputed talent justice thereafter and the final straw came when his scored just 17 runs in six innings at an average of just 2.83. His seven Tests to date have yielded just 301 runs at 27.36 and there is a sense that the selectors are arriving back at his avenue due to his impressive recent ODI form (back-to-back scores of 55 and 71no against England) – Wait…wasn’t that the problem with selecting Bailey in the first place? – a great run in the ODI format, no recent first-class form to speak of and a weakness outside off stump against quality quick bowling – it all sounds very familiar from the Aussie selectors. The questions remain.
One player who can count himself unlucky to miss the trip to South Africa is Phillip Hughes. Hughes remains the best domestic batsman outside of the Australian Test side and he must be wondering when his next opportunity to win nationals honours will arrive. His 549 13/14 Shield runs at 61.00 include a double and two hundreds for South Australia and at just 25, his time will no doubt come again.
Shane Watson must also be counting his lucky stars that he was able to finish the series with a couple of big knocks as his place in the side was being questioned for his lack of “tough runs” at number three, were he not to continue operating as a fifth bowling option then his place could well again be up for debate.
Both David Warner and Chris Rogers had success at the top of the order during different stages of the series (Warner at the start and Rogers towards the conclusion), while Michael Clarke started the series with back-to-back hundreds in Brisbane and Adelaide – perhaps the most significant aspect of this was his team’s ability to still score runs without any huge contribution from their captain after the first two matches – something that has not happened since the retirement of Michael Hussey twelve months ago.
The biggest plus to come out of the past ten Ashes Tests must be the ongoing improvement and maturity of Steve Smith. The 24-year-old was reintroduced into the Test set-up during the disastrous tour of India last March and has since become a solid and reliable Test match batsman. This was most underlined with his first innings centuries in both Perth and Melbourne – both scored with his side in a precarious position.
The fast bowling quartet of Peter Siddle, Ryan Harris, Mitchell Johnson and Watson performed better than even their biggest supporters would have imagined. Across the series they took 79 of the 100 English wickets to fall and collectively they averaged just 15.45 in the first innings and 22.00 in the second.
The important thing for the Aussies is that they have tremendous depth in their fast bowling stocks. At 34 and 32 respectively Harris and Johnson are not going to last forever, especially considering that Harris played half of the Ashes campaign on one leg! The fact that he played all five matches of the series is a huge plus for his side – and that he has now played nine consecutive matches this year is something what would have been deemed impossible just six months ago.
James Pattinson and Jackson Bird both return for the South African tour party after they proved their fitness in the ongoing Big Bash campaign. Meanwhile Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Nathan Coulter-Nile will all look to return to the Test setup during the next twelve months and if the young trio of Cummins, Pattinson and Starc can all remain injury-free for a prolonged period of time then the transitional phase from the Harris and Johnson era should eventually be a smooth one.
The three match tour of South Africa is a hugely significant one for Australia as they will return to number one side in the the ICC Test rankings if they were to beat the hosts. Only a few months ago this side was losing 3-0 in England and a shot at the number one spot looked a world away. The tour also marks the only Test cricket the side will play until they visit the UAE to take on Pakistan in October – a series which has already been downgraded to just two Tests after a one day series was squeezed into the schedule by the PCA.
That tour will certainly put their ability to play quality spin bowling under the microscope. Facing the likes of Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman on pitches likely to be doctored to turn from the off is likely to be a huge challenge for a batting line up that performed so abysmally during their tour of India last year.
For England a 5-0 Ashes whitewash marks the end of a hugely successful era of English cricket. Despite the team not losing a Test series before this one since they were defeated at home by South Africa almost 18 months ago, the cracks have started to appear for a while and the writing on the wall has not far been around the corner for this generation of players.
Big questions remain for England. Does Andy Flower keep his job? Does Alistair Cook keep the captaincy? and how do the selectors go about freshening up a side in need of a makeover?
Firstly, Andy Flower looks set to stay on as team director after he reiterated his decision to guide his side through their transitional phase. The 45-year-old has had a hugely successful stint as England’s main man, his relationship with captains Andrew Strauss and Cook has been a particular key to England’s consistency across all three formats in recent years, but the way that the team performed in the Ashes has raised questions over Flower’s tough leadership skills in comparisons to the laissez faire approach offered by his counterpart Darren Lehmann, which has seen the Australian’s play a more fun and exciting brand of cricket.
Flower can perhaps think himself lucky to still be in a job, but his past successes over his five years in charge have earned him the right to stay and overhaul the next generation of English cricket moving forward. Likewise Cook will continue as Test captain and perhaps just relinquish the ODI role after the ongoing ODI series in Australia. The lack of genuine leadership contenders leaves Cook in a position where he is still the best man for the job as other options such as Stuart Broad, Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen all have their own current issues going on. One bad series doesn’t make Cook a terrible captain , but what it did show was that tactically he is along way behind where he needs to be at this stage of his captaincy.
England next Test examination isn’t until they host Sri Lanka in June and before then they must make some tough calls on the way they want to go about trying to rejuvenate this stagnated side. There is no doubt that the side needs freshening up with new blood after the host of recent departures has left gapping holes in their line-up. These decisions must of course be made with careful consideration as in some instances careers could well be on the line.
One such instance is the future surrounding Pietersen. The 33-year-old batsmen has recently suggested that he wants to continue playing Test cricket until at least the 2015 home Ashes campaign, but reports of a recent falling out between himself and Flower seem to have put that quest in jeopardy. Some reports were even going far as to say that the South African-born star could well have played his final Test match and that he will continue playing cricket in a T20 freelance role. England must do all they can to keep Pietersen in the side alongside the likes of Bell and Cook as they look to nurture the next generation of batsmen.
Since their last tour down under in 10/11 this side has steadily started to lose its spine, and by the end of this tour the wheels had well and truly fallen off. Since England won their first away Ashes series in 23 years during that 10/11 series, a number of key players have walked away from this hugely successful English cricket side.
First Paul Collingwood retired from the side at the conclusion of that triumphant tour, leaving them without a solid number six since. Eoin Morgan, Ravi Bopara, James Taylor, Jonny Bairstow, Samit Patel and Chris Woakes have all been tried and disregarded since and only now with the emergence of Ben Stokes do the side look like having a long term solution.
The emergence of Stokes is hugely significant for England, not since the days of Andrew Flintoff have they had a
player at number six who can both bowl in the high 80’s and also be aggressive with the bat. Stokes still has a long way to go with both bat and ball to emulate the successes of Flintoff, but his opening few Tests have shown that with the right management and guidance he has to talent and temperament to succeed at Test level – Stokes must now be given a long and fair run at number six.
Another area which England have failed to find an adequate replacement for is the second opening slot alongside Cook. Since Andrew Strauss retired 18 months ago, three men have been given a chance and yet still England don’t have a clue who their best opening combination is. First Nick Compton was tried for the successful tour of India last winter and since the likes of Joe Root and Michael Carberry have also been given the chance to make the spot their own without much success.
Compton was harshly treated by being dropped after England’s home series with New Zealand last summer, despite scoring unnecessary slow at times, he was a solid Test opener who didn’t let any one down in his nine Test matches. After scoring two hundreds in his final five Tests he was pushed aside to allow Root to open alongside his captain. Root at the time was enjoying a purple spell batting in the middle order and in hindsight it was a huge mistake by the ECB to push him to the top of the order before he was fully acclimatised to dealing with the moving ball that comes as a Test opener.
Realising their error, Root was again pushed down the order for the away leg of the Ashes and Carberry brought into the side. Although he performed better than most at times during the series, Carberry didn’t kick on to make that elusive three figures and at 33, the feel is that he will be made a scapegoat for the shambles Down Under and never seen again in an England Test jersey.
Its seemingly possible that England will again turn to Root to open the batting in their next Test series as he is the man they have earmarked to make the spot his own for the next decade or so. Another option for the future opening spot includes Middlesex’s Sam Robson who has impressed in the past two first-class seasons – although he has yet to truly declare his alliance to either England or Australia.
If England didn’t have enough spots to replace in their side, things soon got much worse with their incumbent number three and leading spin bowler both departing during the series. Jonathan Trott left after just one Test match due to a stress related illness and it remains unlikely he will ever represent his adopted country again. Trott’s departure leaves a huge hole in the England top order that was so solid under the Cook, Strauss and Trott era. Ian Bell was eventually moved up the order for the Melbourne Test after an experiment that saw Root fail to adapt to the role in two matches there. With Bell being the side’s best stroke player he must remain there, form and fitness permitting, for the rest of his career.
Replacing a quality spin bowler like Graeme Swann will be a much harder task. Since debuting in Test cricket in late 2008, Swann has taken more wickets (255) than any other spin bowler across the globe and despite not being at his best for the start of the tour, he will be hugely missed in the side for his ability to either hold up an end for the quick bowlers or spin his side to success when the conditions were in his favour.
The English spin bowling cupboard is as bare as it has been in recent memory. Monty Panesar has been the longtime backup ever since he lost his place as the side’s sole spinner when Swann debuted five years ago and although he remains a steady left-arm-orthodox bowler he is not the bowler he was of years gone by and his recent off field antics have not helped his cause either. At 31 though he still has time to get back to somewhere near his best and with 50 Tests behind him he has far superior experience at the highest level compared to his rivals for the role.
Those rivals have included both Simon Kerrigan and Scott Borthwick in recent months and although both are promising spin bowlers in their own right – neither man is yet ready for more Test action. Kerrigan had a unfortunate case of the bowling yips on debut at the Oval in August and has not been included since, while Borthwick was in the right place at the right time when he was called up to make his debut in Sydney at the start of the month. Kerrigan is County cricket’s most consistent bowler of the past few years and his chance will come again once he recovers his confidence for Lancashire this season. Borthwick, a hugely impressive character has the added incentive of being able to bat in the middle-to-lower order but his legspin is still a work in progress and he must find a way of bowling more overs for his county Durham if he is to be considered England’s sole Test spinner.
The fast bowling is also of concern. The main concern being that the two quality fast men that England possess are being run into the ground through a combination of poor management and meaningless scheduling by ECB. Both Stuart Board and James Anderson have looked tired and jaded in recent times and the situation surrounding Steven Finn is also a huge concern. Finn was someone England had picked to be the future of their pace attack for years to come. He ended the tour early and returned to England to clear his mind of the game, no he must go back to Middlesex and start to enjoy his cricket again before returning to the national setup.
Elsewhere Graham Onions, wrongly not selected for the Ashes tour, should be given a further chance to progress his Test career during the Sri Lanka series are he still remains a player with a lot to offer this England setup in the short to medium term. Somerset’s Jamie Overton and Tymal Mills of Essex have both recently been discussed as possible candidates for the England number three bowling slot, but both currently remain raw works in progress and could very well do with at least another year of continuous County action, the same could also be said of Mills’ Essex teammate Reece Topley – who has also shown rich promise in his young career.
At the other end of the age spectrum, both Chris Tremlett and Boyd Rankin could well have played their last Tests for England. The pair both failed to impress in their single appearances over the series and England must now move away from the pair who alongside Finn were seen as the “tall trio to regain the Ashes Down Under.” The fact that Finn didn’t play any of the Tests, Tremlett played the first and was disregarded thereafter and Rankin wasn’t trusted until the Ashes were lost – suggests that the experiment was a complete failure.
Another key area which England must try and find a solution to is that of wicketkeeper. It’s hugely important for Matt Prior to regain the form that made him one of the world’s best wicketkeeper-batsmen just a year ago. He is not just highly influential for his batting and keeping but also for his important influence to the side and to captain Cook. He must go back to Sussex and regain his confidence with bat and gloves in the early County season as his nearest challengers for a long term place in the side, Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow are not nearly good enough wicketkeepers for Test cricket at the present.
Eoin Morgan’s impressive recent ODI form will have people mentioning his name again for the England number five spot, but his reluctance, due to his continued involvement in the IPL, to play any first-class cricket at the start of the County Championship each year should count against him, leaving Gary Ballance as the man in possession unless somebody else scores heavily in the early rounds of the Championship to force a claim.
The future for this England side is not entirely as bleak as the media have been portraying it in recent times, but it certainly needs tweaking in certain areas. With young players like Stokes and Root coming into the side in recent times, its important England put faith in them and give them opportunity to develop alongside the experience of Cook, Bell and Pietersen.
England may well have taken one hell of a beating, but in cricket, time and clever management is certainly a healer.