England’s WoesDan McGrath |
A mere thirty-six months ago, England were about to embark on one of their most successful summers on record. Over the course of the 2011 summer, they would not lose a Test, taking their series against Sri Lanka one to nil and handing out a four Tests to zip drubbing against world champions India. In the process, they took India’s #1 ICC ranking, and solidified themselves as the team to beat in world cricket. In Alistair Cook, they had arguably the best opening batsman in the world. In James Anderson, they had one of the best out-and-out swing bowlers. Graeme Swann stacked up favourably to all spinners bar Saeed Ajmal, and Stuart Broad was finally living up to his potential. The team was moving towards its prime – the future looked ominous; England and South Africa appeared to be a class above all challengers.
But fast forward to the present day, with England about to embark on another home summer featuring the same subcontinental tourists, and it has all fallen apart. Cook, now with the added weight of captaincy on his shoulders, looks no worse than he did in 2011 – but the runs have dried up. Anderson has spent the past twelve months struggling for consistency, and the twelve before were not up to his lofty standards. Swann has retired, and Kevin Pietersen is gone. While Ian Bell has finally matured, putting Australia to the sword in the 2013 home Ashes, nobody knows whether his Warwickshire teammate Jonathan Trott – the rock of England 2011’s top order – will be able to take his place in the line-up. Even if Trott is up to representing England this summer, his form pre-Brisbane does not command selection in the way it once did.
And to make matters worse, they’ve just lost to the Dutch. Again.
The stability that characterised England’s success is gone. Joe Root is a case in point. The prodigiously talented youngster debuted at fourth drop against India, and since then has batted pretty much everywhere in the England top six. By the end of the Australian tour he looked shattered, completely incapable of making runs in the ODI series. Ben Stokes may have gone the same way, though it is more difficult to tell. He burst onto the scene and made England?s first century of the Ashes series, but has since struggled on a diet of ODI and T20 cricket, similarly struggling with a lack of defined role, flitting between number three batsman and specialist fourth seamer with stunning regularity. There is simply no stability in the England set-up. Since the retirement of Andrew Strauss, all three of Nick Compton, Joe Root and Michael Carberry have been tried as openers, none gaining an extended run (Carberry may yet retain his place for the home summer, but it looks increasingly unlikely). Monty Panesar was dropped after a sole Test as Graeme Swann’s replacement, for Scott Borthwick, the Durham top order batsman and spinner who happened to be in Sydney playing grade cricket at the time.
It is obvious that a resurgent Australia, led by Mitchell Johnson, threw the Englishmen off balance. But as a certain tower in Italy would attest, being pushed off kilter does not necessarily have to cause structural failure. And England’s failure has been catastrophic in nature; the handling of the situation even worse. Clearly, the ECB cannot win. If they make widespread changes – as they have with the imminent naming of Andrew Flower’s replacement, the final (or so they hope) end to the KP saga, the retirement of Swann, discarding of Panesar and dropping of a hapless Matt Prior – they risk losing their best cricketing talent and may well sacrifice current results in the hope of future gains. If they did nothing, they may well have condemned themselves to repeating the same mistakes over and over, with the same results.
They have young talent in spades – Jos Buttler, Steven Finn, Stokes and Root are all the right side of 25 and have England caps to their name, while Moeen Ali appears to be developing into a more-than-useful prospect for them. The county scene is also strong, and one could rattle off a lengthy list of names who could potentially become international class. But none have set the world alight yet despite showing glimpses of their promise, and there seems to be a problem transitioning from the county system into providing sustained performances at Test level, as Jonny Bairstow would attest. Steven Finn is also an example of this, his bowling deteriorating so much during the tour to Australia that he became unselectable and proceeded to miss England’s winter limited overs exploits, after having been England’s go-to strike weapon with the white ball for the preceding two years.
It is hard to pinpoint the cause of England’s recent struggles; very little appears to have changed in their set-up between that India series in 2011 and their current position. But in that time, the wheels have well and truly fallen off. Too much cricket, not enough cricket, too much coaching, not enough coaching, poor quality coaching, consistency in selection, inconsistency in selection, too much KP influence, not enough KP influence and a variety of other contradictory causes have been posited as theories for decline. Flower, Gooch and Saker are simultaneously responsible for the initial English rise, improving players like Cook, Bell and Anderson to be better than they were, as well as the rapid fall, unable to arrest the Johnson-induced slide. Whatever the cause is – if in fact there is one specific cause at all – it needs to be discovered and redressed quickly.
It is obvious that the Strauss-led generation of English cricketers thrived on stability. With that now completely out of the window, the Cook era will need to find a way to bounce back from a failure of near-unprecedented proportions and discover how to adapt to changing personnel.
We’re looking at a very different English summer to that of 2011.