The Ashes: why did it all go wrong?

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As a cricket fan these past few months have been intriguing. It seems hard to remember the feelings of optimism we all held as England tried to make history by being the first group of poms to win the Ashes four times in a row. A team full of world-class players should have gone down under to play a distinctly average and inexperienced Australian team and have the urn retained by Christmas.

That is what should have happened. Why the complete opposite happened is one of sport’s great mysteries.

Except it isn’t. A hammering like this has been coming; it’s just a shame it had to wait until they were stuck in Australia for three months.

The batting for the whole year has been frail. As a team, England simply stopped making the runs they used to. They have played 13 matches – well over 20 innings – since they last made over 400, which came against hardly stellar opposition in the form of New Zealand. Bearing in mind the first eight of those 13 were all at home against the All Blacks and then a disastrously unprepared Australia, alarm bells should have been ringing.

This hasn’t been helped by the instability of the batting order. The failure of any opener to stake a real claim to Strauss’ vacated position can’t have helped Alistair Cook, as he seems to get a new partner for every tour. Nick Compton came and went, Joe Root has been yo-yoed up and down the order to his detriment and finally Michael Carberry was rushed in for this calamitous tour. After the uncertainty over Jonny Bairstow’s suitability to bat at six and Jonathan Trott’s diagnosis with a mental illness, only three of the top seven could be classed as reliable.

Even the bowling, this team’s forte, has been deceiving us for quite some time. There is no doubt that James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graemme Swann are – or in the case of Swann, was – truly great bowlers. Despite that, the tendency for English groundsmen to prepare low, flat wickets lulled everyone into a false sense of security. Only having to bowl at 90 per cent to take 20 wickets in the summer meant the batting-friendly Australian pitches were always going to provide a nasty surprise.

Stuart Broad, the pantomime villain, is the only one to have covered himself in anything that could resemble glory. Anderson has looked toothless without the typical English cloud cover that can facilitate swing while Swann has failed to get the same revolutions, and thus dip and spin, on the ball thanks to his second elbow operation last March.

Throw into the mix the uncertainty over England’s fourth bowler and you can see why 20 wickets were impossible to come by down under. Chris Tremlett’s nickname of the ‘BFG’ seemed to get the better of him as he bowled with the hostility of a tidilywinks player rather than a six foot eight inch pace bowler. And since his recent elbow injury Tim Bresnan has lost some of the nip that made him so valuable.

On this tour the fielding has been shambolic, and that’s being kind. It isn’t just dropped catches and missed stumpings (Matt Prior, Michael Carberry and Alistair Cook to name but a few); it has been general sloppiness. Lack of aggression in the in-field allowed the Aussies to rotate the strike easily while poor ground fielding in the deep and lazy chases have given the persona of a team that either doesn’t care or just can’t be bothered. It has been painful to watch, especially because this team used to take such pride in their fielding, at being the best and at building immense pressure for opposing batsmen.

The contrast with the Australian fielding has been stark. The baggy greens have been merciless in the field, never tiring, never giving an inch while taking spectacular catches all too often.

The Australians do deserve an enormous amount of credit in general. You don’t lose a test series 5-0 by just being bad: the other team need to play well. Peter Siddle, Ryan Harris and Nathan Lyon were metronomic. Then there was Mitchell Johnson. It has been a long time since I have witnessed such aggressive, hostile but most importantly quick bowling. Several times on the tour, most notably in Adelaide and Brisbane, Johnson bowled superlative spells of bowling that simply blew the English away. They had no response.

The Australian batting was fantastic as well. David Warner and Steve Smith made a mockery of the defensive-mindedness of the English by coming out and playing with a freedom and intent unseen under Micky Arthur. For that, caps must be doffed to Darren Lehman. The former Australian batsmen has instilled belief, unity and fight back into the Aussie team since taking over in the summer and a lot of the credit for their success should be laid at his feet. He transformed a weak, divided, vulnerable team into a savage animal; a beast that England weren’t able to tame.

There have always been and will always be bad tours to Australia. It is an enormously difficult place to go. But England were simply embarrassing. The tour will go down as the most humiliating in history; a title more than deserved.

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