After the Whitewash

The news that England had completed their dismal surrender of the Ashes urn with a ten-wicket trouncing barely registered this morning. After Adelaide, it was only ever blind and irrational hope that had ever suggested any other outcome could have been possible. For the first time in 86 years, Australia: Five, England: Nil. Zero. Naught. Nothing. Squat.

It’s fifteen months since I sat on a train, bathing in the afterglow of the greatest thing to happen to English cricket in my memory. Today, as I journey in the other direction down that same railway, my mind lies at right angles too.

Defeat is not a crime in itself – it was not for nothing that the Ashes 2006/2007 was the most eagerly anticipated Test series of all time. The Australians, arguably the finest group of eleven men to wear the Baggy Green, bloodied, bruised and beaten by their oldest of enemies in the Mother Country, were out for revenge. Test cricket, revitalised by the energy of the last series, was desperate for more. England, elevated by the media on both sides of the world to a pedestal of near-equality with their opponents, shared the cameras’ glare, their pressure and their focus. Then they froze.

So why (and where) did it all go wrong? What was so different between Vaughan’s Victors and Freddie’s Flops? Readers, I give you: How to lose the Ashes in six simple steps.

Pick the wrong man
You have at your disposal the finest all-round cricketer in the world, capable of winning matches with bat, ball or both, governed by passion, driven on inspiration, whose major leadership experience came at the age of 11. You also have a top-order batsman, fresh from a 3-0 success in his captaincy debut with a track record at school, university and county level. When you meet to pick the skipper, do not take the obvious option. Burden your match-winner and your talisman with further responsibility and squeeze away the flair that fires his game. The uncertainty created by this can be further magnified by the continued presence of half-fit previous captains on the tour.

Ensure your attack is selected based on your checklist, and that it has barely played cricket for a year
It has come to the time to select the spearheads, the men to repeat the feats of 2005 and to keep the Australians from plundering hundreds at will. You have many men to choose from – some with a summer’s wicket-taking form behind them, others with nothing more than net workout or Lancashire League batting… if that. Ensure that you disregard current form – a bowling attack lacking in match practice will bowl far more four-balls per spell.

It is also important to remember what makes a bowler suitable for International cricket. Contrary to popular belief, wickets and economy in the County game are not adequate predictors of International success. You must be tall, bowl short of a length as a rule and be capable of reaching 90mph (145kph) or higher. The ability to reverse-swing the old ball is also desirable. This will enable you to bowl occasionally devastating spells whilst serving an all-you-can diet of half-volleys and long hops the rest of the time. This can be excused with the word ‘potential’. Do not be fooled by the outdated idea that these players should refine their games in County cricket – this will regress their development. The One-Day International game is the appropriate venue for this.

Your side must be selected to a rigid structure, in the name of batting depth and balance
You select five batsmen, an all-rounder, a wicketkeeper, and four bowlers. One of these bowlers must be able to bat; his bowling ability is far less relevant in matters of selection – this player will be selected at number eight. This allows your side to appear balanced on your team sheet – it was a successful approach with five bowlers in fitness and form so it will work once more. Do not account for any successful batting positions that players have occupied since 2005, and allow them to decide where they bat in their order.

This has the added bonus of building a team ethic which will make your players less vulnerable to any criticism and enable the remainder of your plan to succeed. If properly executed, this step can create a tail-end batting lineup reminiscent of the halcyon days of the 1990s, whilst simultaneously excluding you from responsbility as you have maintained your emphasis on batting depth.

Shuffle your preference in wicketkeeping often enough to destabilise and unsettle both of your selections
It is critical to undermine the confidence of the wicketkeeper. He has a crucial role at number seven in the batting line-up, and regular failures here can play an important role in triggering or sustaining lower order collapses. Ensure you choose a favourite wicketkeeper, and select him wherever possible, particularly when out of form. This has two effects – he doesn’t score any runs, and the continued non-selection of the alternative further hurts his confidence. Under-pressure wicketkeepers are also fine exponents of dismissals so amateurish that they can add momentum to even the most nascent of collapses.

Warm up matches are an unnecessary distraction
Should you capitulate in any preceding one-day tournaments, on no account must you use the potential extra days to acclimatise to Australian conditions. Instead, fly halfway round the world, twice, to provide three extra days at home. This is another strategy with double effect: you acquire jet lag as well as losing the practice time. Additionally, it can easily be explained away as a morale-boosting exercise in bonding team spirit.

Warm-up games cannot be altogether avoided, but their positive effects can be marginalised – if not entirely removed – in several simple ways. Ensure the matches are three – if not two days – long, and that the competition is 14-a-side. This serves to lower the intensity to a near-insignificant level. This allows you to sideline those players who will play in the next Test match.

All decisions and media activity on and off the field must be of a defensive nature at all times
Aggressive strokeplay and field setting, whilst also providing the potential for spectacular collapse, also run the risk of shifting the initiative towards your team. This can be avoided by the employment of defence, in the name of eschewing risks – which allows a slow bleed of the momentum towards the opposition. It can be particularly effective if you are on top, and can be explained away as a desire not to instantly allow the opposition back into the game.

It is equally vital that all press statements must show unity and commitment to the team cause throughout the series. Disquiet, whilst in the short run able to deaden team morale, can lead to inconvenient impassioned fightbacks, which can destabilise the entire project.

Yes, I know I’ve exaggerated, and yes, it’s probably unfair in places – but you can put that down to the combination of sleepless nights, replete with heads buried pillow-deep in despair, and signalling failures at Thorne South leading me to wonder whether I’m actually going to make my connection. Notwithstanding either, some things went wrong – very wrong – in Australia this winter, and Team England now sit on an uncomfortable edge. On one side lies recovery and redemption, on the other a slow, steady, inexorable slide back to 1999 and abject mediocrity. There are tough decisions ahead on each of the six steps, and whether England are able to mount a respectable attempt at regaining the urn come 2009 will come down to whether or not we are able to take them.

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