Well ladies and gentleman, that as they say was that! Having held the Ashes for the shortest time in the history of the series England should rightly be dejected and disappointed with the manner of their defeat. On the other hand however, everybody must take their hats off to Australia after one of the most ruthless and focused performances in the history of cricket.
The debate about selection will no doubt rage on for a good while yet, but now is the time to be honest. Even with our best side it is doubtful if England had the ability to beat Australia on their own soil. Ricky Ponting, Michael Hussey, Stuart Clark and of course Shane Warne have been absolutely marvellous. Whilst there have been weaknesses in this Australian team the performances of these men have made it very questionable as to whether or not England ever had a chance, even with their best eleven on the field.
Ponting has captained superbly, nobody knows how to get Hussey out, whilst Warne and Clark have known precisely how to get England’s batsman out. When the promising performances of Michael Clarke are thrown into the ring, along with the contributions of the untameable Adam Gilchrist, resilient Glenn McGrath, attritional Justin Langer and dominating Matthew Hayden, you really can see why this team are ranked as the number one side in the world and by some margin.
The sad truth of the matter is that of six Australian innings, during which some sixty wickets were up for grabs, England have only taken thirty-nine. When batting they have failed to pass two hundred and fifty on three occasions, twice in the first innings. That simply is not good enough to win Test matches and even with Monty Panesar in the side the consistent bowling threat has just not been available from both ends, as on the Australian side.
Of all the England players the only one who has performed on a consistently comparable scale is Kevin Pietersen. Still though the talismanic player has received criticism for getting out for seventy when batting with number ten at the crease. This attitude must stop now. This man has been playing test match cricket for just eighteen months. He is still a relative baby compared to the likes of Ponting, Warne and McGrath, yet he has done his best to carry England.
Pietersen is currently rated as the seventh highest England Test batsman of all time. He is still only 26 and averages 52.50 from forty Test innings, during which he has scored six hundreds and nine fifties. He has played with common sense and grace in Australia and has not tried to hit every ball out of the ground as many wrongly feared. This man is no “Boom Boom” Afiridi, he is pure and consistent class.
Injuries did indeed hamper England of course. Michael Vaughan’s captaincy, Simon Jones’ reverse swing and Andrew Flintoff’s all round displays were the key reasons behind England’s success just sixteen months ago. In the current series we have lost all three of those trump cards, with the former two out of the side through injury and Flintoff overburdened, possibly unfit and perhaps overrated. The current England Captain has suffered a collapse of batting form and even his bowling has appeared laboured, with little consistent pressure available at the opposite end.
As a selector, Flintoff appears to have had the overriding vote to start with and I remain certain that Fletcher selected him, rather than Strauss as Captain, as much for his appreciation of Geraint Jones than anything else. The England management will tell you that hindsight is a wonderful thing, yet for the majority of us the team selection was wrong from day one.
Ashley Giles, who, as one of the nicest guys in cricket, does not deserve the current illness which faces his wife at this supposedly joyous time of year, should never have been selected above Monty Panesar, who had performed so admirably to become the world’s “leading finger spinner.”
Geraint Jones’ selection was more expected and indeed slightly more justifiable given the assumed advantages of his batting on pitches upon which he grew up on. His glove work has been reasonable, not exceptional, but his batting has been atrocious. His England career is surely now all but over.
Chris Read can consider himself slightly unfortunate to be dropped, especially in favour of Jones, but it still remains doubtful as to whether the man who averaged just 27.41 in the LVCC1 could have scored the mega runs which England required, what with the horrendous form of their number six.
A dismal Champions Trophy performance, during which he was dismissed by an out of sorts McGrath, was poor with the gloves and racked up scores of 2, 0 and 4, helped to explain his axing. Whilst he scored runs against Pakistan it must be taken into account that that was against a Pakistani attack missing their three premier strike bowlers, Shoaib Aktar, Mohammed Asif and Shabbir Ahmed.
His performances in the ODI series against Pakistan also did little to help his cause as he ended with scores of 0, 30, 21no and 4. What I am saying here is not that Jones should have played, but that maybe it was not Read who should have taken his place and should do so now. For the last year I have wanted to see somebody else given a chance. There is no shortage of talent with Matthew Prior and Steven Davies currently working with the academy squad.
Prior averaged 46.70 in first class cricket last season as Sussex lifted the championship. Surely he is deserving of a chance. The young prodigy Davies, who has already been hyped up unfairly as the next Adam Gilchrist is a splendid glove man. Beyond these two James Foster and Phil Mustard continue to go dutifully about their business in county cricket. One can only imagine how depressing it must be to be continually discounted because of this nonsensical tug of war between Jones and Read, which has only served to detract attention from the splendid performances of some of England’s future wicket keeping talent. If none of the aforementioned are considered along with Read it will be a sad loss for English cricket.
Of England’s batsman Alastair Cook has proved himself, but Ian Bell is still working his way there and as such looks unsuited to such a crucial position as number three in the batting line up. When Vaughan returns I hope he comes back as an opener where he has played his best cricket for England. Cook dropping down to three provides England with such a calming and stabilising presence, whilst Bell could move down in to the middle order, where he played so brilliantly against Pakistan, racking up three consecutive hundreds.
The aggression of Vaughan and Trescothick has been missing from England’s opening three and with it back England will look a more dominating side. Pietersen has played fantastic cricket at five, but maybe if he came in at four once more we would see some bigger scores from the man who is equally adept at playing pace and spin bowling, with aggression. Bell has a fantastic temperament ala Graham Thorpe and looks very good against spin. I believe that he could anchor the side at five and dropping him down the order removes some of the pressure on the man and importantly gets him away from the new ball, against which he can look suspect.
If Flintoff is to continue to play as a number six, there must be a rapid improvement. His streaky innings on the final day at Perth seemed merely to confirm that he can no longer be considered worthy of a place on batting alone. With that being the case he should not be batting in the top six. His career Test average is equal to that of Shaun Pollock, standing at 32.00. Pollock is a fantastic bowling all rounder who bats at number eight, as is Flintoff. Flintoff is no Jaques Kallis with the bat and similarly Kallis is no Flintoff with the ball. England must recognise this fallibility at number six and rectify it.
Pushed down to seven Flintoff could afford to play his aggressive innings ala Gilchrist, without the pressure of knowing that big runs are expected of him every time he goes out to bat. The question of who bats at six now becomes tricky though. If England want to maintain a five man attack without Flintoff in the top six, then they must select Prior, who is capable of scoring major runs at six. He is the best batsman of all the wicket keeping options.
This may be something that England have to spend a lot of time thinking about given their inability to take twenty wickets in a match at present. This would still give England a very long tail though, with Hoggard, Harmison, Jones and Panesar to follow, but hopefully the top seven batsman would be up to scoring the required runs. Stephen Harmison’s position can not be safe though. Of his five wickets at Perth two were McGrath and Clark, numbers ten and eleven. He is still not the bowler he was in early 2004 and has no consistency whatsoever.
Stuart Broad must now come into serious consideration as a replacement. Hyped up yet again, as the next McGrath, the Leicestershire pace man has the potential to be a great bowler and what’s more he is a consistent line and length bowler, with bounce, a bowler England currently lack. The son of former England opener Chris Broad, he can also bat and would solve the current number eight problem, with his inclusion going some way to shortening England's tail. With Simon Jones an almost certain returnee because of his ability to swing the ball both ways, that may jeopardise Matthew Hoggard’s position in a four man attack, although it would be harsh to drop England’s best bowler on tour so far, currently ranked sixth by the ICC. If that were to happen though it would open the door for the best wicket keeper, perhaps Chris Read or Steven Davies to bat at eight, with another batsman coming in at six.
That man would surely have to be Paul Collingwood. His two hundred shows that he has class and concentration. His ninety-two showed us he has guts. Unfortunately these two innings also demonstrated that whilst he can score on a flat deck, he is troubled by seam bowling outside his off stump on result pitches and this has proved to be his undoing so far in his international career. For this reason I do not believe that he should bat at four and at best should come in at five. He is though a talented player and worthy of a slot if England want to bat down to six, although he must watch out for the flamboyant Irishman, Ed Joyce, coming over the horizon, along with Marcus Trescothick. The experiences of fellow double centurions Brad Hodge, Jason Gillespie and Rob Key demonstrate that a cricketer is never safe and rightly so.
England must consider the above issues carefully and adapt the make up of their side for the future. Ultimately, England must focus on ending the batting collapses and consistently taking twenty wickets, if they want to become the best side in the world. At present they can’t do either against the undisputed leader of world cricket. It has been a lesson in ruthlessness and class that the Australian’s have dealt out and unfortunately it looks set to continue for the next two months. In time for the next domestic season, England must make some changes to their strategy and start building for the future. They must select a side for the summer which can bring England success in the next Ashes series in just two and a half years time.
Andrew Strauss (vc)
Michael Vaughan (c)
Matthew Prior (wk) (Paul Collingwood)
Matthew Hoggard (Steven Davies/ Chris Read)