By Bharath Ramaraj
In the cut-throat competitive world of sport, a year can make all the difference. A minor slip up can lead to the very opponent who you pummeled to submission last time around catching up with you and finally giving you a taste of your medicine. Something similar happened to the England cricket team. As 2012 drew to a close, England were on the top of the world, as they had just beaten India for the first time in 28 years in their own den. However by the end of 2013, they have crash landed from those heavenly heights to the depths of despair, after being bulldozed by Australia Down Under. We are looking at an Australian setup that was whitewashed in India and then lost the Ashes series in the Old Blighty 3-0.
Fingers have been pointed at the coaching staff and senior players in the England setup for their shambolic performance in Australia. Their abject failure to even compete with a rejuvenated Australian team though, is a result of collective failure. The blame definitely doesn’t rest on a particular individual.
England started the year with a low key tour to New Zealand. The Kiwis were a completely ravaged and demoralised side after a misunderstanding with coach Mike Hesson saw Ross Taylor moving out of captaincy role. They were made to look like a journeyman outfit by a marauding South African lineup. So, then the second ranked Test side England was expected to follow in South Africa’s footsteps and steamroll New Zealand. The series didn’t exactly go exactly as per everyone’s expectations.
On some flat decks in New Zealand, the fragile batting lineup of the home team held firm remarkably and would have likely won the Test series, if not for Matt Prior’s once-in-a-generation rescue act. England spearhead James Anderson didn’t swing the red cherry around the corners to test the fissures in a batsman’s defence. To make it worse, the swing-king also known for extracting seam movement out of most tracks since 2010 was bowling gun-barrel straight. Steve Finn was troubled by run-up issues. Stuart Broad had his moments, but England seems to be a completely different unit when Anderson akin to a cheetah cleverly manoeuvres the crease to keep the batsmen on tenterhooks.
The batting department flopped too. Kevin Pietersen went home with his troublesome knee. Yet, they had the likes of Ian Bell, Alastair Cook, Jonthan Trott and company, but most of them were not consistent enough. Curiously, the one batsman who stonewalled a fine New Zealand pace attack in Nick Compton, no more finds a place in the England squad!
England enjoyed success when New Zealand embarked on a return leg tour largely on the back of Anderson and Broad being in rip-roaring form. With Australia finding themselves in a myre, most cricket pundits expected an easy ride ahead for England.
In the Ashes series though, under Darren Lehmann, the Australian setup seemed to have gelled together well and they executed their plans to perfection. Pietersen’s runs on the onside were virtually cut off, Cook was rarely given to play rapier like cuts and pulls and Trott was bombarded with a barrage of shot stuff for walking down the pitch to fast bowlers. Only Ian Bell came out of it as a true winner with mountains of runs. Pietersen struck it out and was just about above average, but far from his best.
Even while batting, Australia ran Anderson ragged by taking singles and not allowing him to bowl to a particular batsman for long. When a confident England squad expected to win the Ashes for a record fourth time in 2013-14 arrived Down Under, those cracks that had opened up in England team were ruthlessly exposed in Australian conditions.
Cook grafted, grafted before in frustration wafted outside his off-stump to be caught behind on numerous occasions. Pietersen wasn’t given all those freebies on his pads and was made to work extremely hard for his runs by Peter Siddle. At the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), Pietersen had to play out of his skins to essay a knock of 71. Ian Bell, who showed breathtaking batsmanship went back to his pre-Ashes days by getting out to soft dismissals. He was the one batsman they didn’t have a plan to deliver the coup de grace. However, Bell has been below par in the Ashes just like his colleagues.
They yet again frustrated Anderson by rotating the strike, before George Bailey’s blitzkrieg at WACA ripped apart the Lancastrian pacer. The same bowler, who made the heads of Australian batsmen roll by extracting movement off the track in 2010-11, suddenly looked ordinary. When your key bowler is down and out, rest of them would struggle. Yes, Broad bowled well in patches, but he is still not an attack leader. The Ashes defeat led, arguably England’s best spinner since Jim Laker, Swann hang up his spiked boots. It is high time that England show at least a bit of the British Bulldog spirit to eschew from the ignominy of a series whitewash at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG). In reality, they look ripe for a whitewash.
In the shorter versions of the game though, England had some good results to feel happy about. They did reach the ICC Champions Trophy final and convincingly beat New Zealand away from home. But after such a humiliating Ashes series defeat, it is hard to expect England to compete in the upcoming ODI series against Australia.
There are already talks about a change of guard in the England team. The think-tank though, has to be careful, while planning for the future. It doesn’t make much sense to throw away a slew of seasoned players altogether. To guide the likes of Ben Stokes, Scott Borthwick, Moeen Ali, Robson, Josh Buttler, Jamie Overton, Chris Jordon, Boyd Rankin, Steve Finn, Joe Root and others to the path of success, they need the helping hand of a few seniors around.
The year 2014 would be an interesting one for England. It is time for some new faces to emerge from England’s cricket stables and soar to great heights.
(Bharath Ramaraj, an MBA in marketing, eats, drinks and sleeps cricket. He has played at school and college-level, and now channelises his passion for the game by writing about it)
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