Gutless, aimless… hopeless

I still can’t work out quite what happened last night. I’m an England fan – I have been since I was four, since Graham Gooch’s imperial triple hundred at Headquarters. I’ve suffered defeat in Zimbabwe, meltdown in the Caribbean and the ignominy of being ranked eight out of eight after that New Zealand game. I’ve endured Darren Maddy, Ian Salisbury, Tim Bresnan and endless Mark Ramprakash.

None of that ever felt like this.

Three days ago we were record breakers, Pietersen and Collingwood mentioned in the same breath as Cowdrey and May. One day ago the Second Test was safe. Today England lie battered and broken on the Adelaide turf, beaten notsomuch by Australian brilliance – though Shane Warne was undeniably at his irrepressible best – but by their own hesitation, indecision and disorganisation.

Our ODI side has been guilty of lacking purpose for longer than I care to pin down an exact timeline. Give a man in a blue-and-red shirt a cricket bat, and you can guarantee he will wield it without plans for powerplays, innings-building or slog overs. Whites and creams were a panacea, the removal of time’s constrictions releasing England to flourish in their natural game… but with hindsight the cracks still showed.

At Edgbaston we needed fifty between Flintoff and Simon Jones to set Australia those two runs too many. At Trent Bridge it needed Hoggard and Giles to complete what should have been a straightforward chase. In Pakistan, the First Test slipped from a steady runchase into another stumbling collapse. Yes, we got there at The Oval – thank Warney – but how very nearly we didn’t. When was the last time we closed anything out with bats in hand?

I’m sitting, watching Sky Sports’ autopsy of the night, watching in full knowledge of what-happens-next, and still watching in despair and incredulity as the innings unravels. Statistics, so often damningly wielded about the cricket pitch, took on a whole new weight of indictment. England took 92 balls to score their first fifty runs on the fourth evening… and 236 more to strain to three figures. It wasn’t until 12:57 that England hit their first Tuesday boundary.

When Matthew Hoggard dragged Shane Warne’s googly onto his middle stump in mid-afternoon, England had lost seven wickets for 36. Run scoring atrophied, bat-pad vultures hovered and England’s batsmen followed one another meekly into their traps. We won the Ashes last summer by playing our own game and refusing to have terms dictated to us. Today, Australia set out their stocks and England fastened themselves inside.

It’s not the fact that we lost that hurts. My teams have done that to me often enough for simple defeat not to matter. It’s the way that it feels like we handed the game to Australia. Scoring at one per over, handing the screwdriver of pressure to the Baggy Greens. Frittering wickets away to innocuous, wide deliveries – Geraint and Andrew, I’m looking in your direction – breaking up what little momentum we retained.

Indecisive, inappropriate, irresponsible. Without a gameplan and without direction, England’s batsmen dug their graves with spades of their own anxiety. Afraid to play positively, we never played at all… and the unfathomability is the worst of it.

I’ve never been shy to criticise Ricky Ponting for failing to find a Plan B, but today it was Fletcher’s England sticking in their rut. There’s a line where loyalty and persistence give way to bloody-mindedness and favouritism, a line that Team England are teetering precariously upon.

We are still in the series. It is still possible to retain the Ashes. The combined might of Eddo Brandes, Shayne O’Connor and Reon King never sapped my faith as a boy, and I still believe beyond any rationale now that anything can happen on the cricket field. Come Perth on Thursday week, the unavoidable incentive to take the initiative must galvanise England into a brighter mindset… but to retain their tiniest of chances of retaining the urn, more than that must change.

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