How many times have we said that recently? The first 5-0 Ashes defeat for over 80 years? Failing to win a live game against a major Test-playing nation at the World Cup? Losing at home to India? Getting bowled out for 81 in Sri Lanka? Being timidity personified in Hamilton against an admirable but not overly threatening attack, against whom England batted for 173 overs, but scored at a soporofic two-an-over, and then subsiding pathetically in the second innings for 110? Coming on the back of New Zealand being decimated by the IPl and ICL, to whom they essentialy lost half their side including their most valuable player, Shane Bond, that would take some beating.
And yet England have managed it. Scrapping over the follow-on target against the Kiwis at Old Trafford was just about as depressing as it comes. Dan Vettori has bowled with mesmerising guile (much better in fact, than he bowled in New Zealand), while Ian O'Brien has been fantastic. But England have been diffident and pathetic, showing no inclination to hit bowlers off their rhythm, allowing themselves to be trapped in their crease meekly, barely able to hit a run and just wait for their inevitable dismissals. If New Zealand have been fantastic, it is in large part because they have been allowed to be.
With the ball, England were far too loose, once more unable to exploit fairly helpful conditions. The bowlers seem incapable of thinking on their feet. While Ross Taylor played a phenomenal innings, testament to his rare talent, England totally lacked discipline or skill. James Anderson is far too erratic for Test cricket, and must immediately be dispensed with. Monty Panesar's downward curve continues; he is symptomatic of England's struggles when the opposition do something unexpected.
A damning indictement of this side is they have not learned from their feebleness in Hamilton, and have repeated all the same mistakes. The batting was abject once more. It is an oft-quoted statistic that all the top six average over 40, but those averages have been in decline for some time. Furthermore, the averages are boosted both by feasting on minnows and today's generally easier batting conditions. 40 is clearly no longer the mark of a top-class Test batsman. The batting lineup seems fundamentally flawed, and rejigging the pack cannot disguise it. Men of skill and desire, such as Owais Shah and Rob Key (and, given the desperation of the situation and the need to win the next game, rather than plan for some mythical date in the future, perhaps even Mark Ramprakash or his captain Mark Butcher, enjoying the purplest of patches), should be brought in, not just for the quality they possess but for the message it would send. The decision to drop Andrew Strauss and simultaneously hand him a new central contract was a half-hearted signal at best; and he got back in without making a run.
The skipper led by example, eeking out an agonising 133-ball 30. He often talks of helping his players "express themselves"; yet he himself was patently incapable of doing that. Ian Bell's innings surprised no one - a painstaking start followed by a somewhat half-hearted waft outside offstump.Paul Collingwood, for the second consecutive innings, looked out of his depth. He maximises his talent, certainly, but is painfully out-of-form - he has hit just 39 runs in seven innings this season - and, ultimately, is simply perhaps not good enough at Test level, whatever an Ashes double-hundred may suggest. The most depressing innings, however, was played by England's best batsman.
Kevin Pietersen has gradually gone from being a maverick, and a genius capable of decimating the bowling with his idiosyncratic brand of fearlessnes, into a man seemingly lacking faith in his own ability. The transformation was inevitable in some respects (as I have discussed before), and is not without its benefits. Maturity has brought some positive aspects, of course, but it is grim watching the contrast between him and Taylor, surely no more talented, on the same pitch in the same match.
This is, at last in part, an indictement of the England set-up. Are players so well-rewarded, that they are so desperate to cling onto their places that they are paralysed by fear? The culture appears to gradually suck the individuality out of players; they are spoon-fed by legions of support staff, and subsequently have lost the ability to think for themselves. This extends even to the captain and coach, who refrain from indulging in horses-for-courses of any sort - the merits of which were reaffirmed by O'Brien's sterling endeavours here. The stability of central contracts has clearly gone way too far: it appears easier to get into the side than out of it. What to do? Sack the lot of 'em? England need a shakeup of sorts, even if it has the whiff of '90s short-termism about it.