The Ashes are gone. Again. Just like the old days. So, where did it all go wrong Down Under? England have been abject. Out-batted, out-bowled, out-fought, out-thought, out-played and out-sledged. Strewth! There are plenty of contributory factors: poor form, complacency, an ageing team and under-preparation. All these elements played their part. But one crucial problem stands out: the absence of a winning ethos. England learnt how to win test matches, but never quite figured out how to dominate.
It’s difficult to believe that this was the same England cricket team which topped the ICC test rankings two years ago. Former skipper Andrew Strauss has retired, but the senior players in the current squad played a key role in the victorious Ashes tour of 2010-11 and the 4-0 series rout of India in 2011. At the time that England team were lauded as the greatest England test side ever. Yes, seriously. The greatest ever? What a joke! Whatever happy pills we’d swallowed clearly played havoc with our sense of perspective.
We were guilty of premature celebration. It’s a very British disease. Throughout the 1990s, England lived in the shadow of the fearsome Aussie teams. They owned us. They bullied us. We were their cricket bitches. But eventually that aura of invincibility started to crumble and England gradually rediscovered the knack of winning. When England regained the Ashes on home soil in 2005, we couldn’t believe our luck. We were so unused to winning that we behaved like intoxicated lottery winners. We organised a celebratory open-top bus parade. We dished out gongs to everyone – even Paul Collingwood, who did little more than carry out the drinks. It was embarrassing. And it wasn’t a huge surprise when England suffered a sobering 5-0 series whitewash in Australia the following year.
England had celebrated prematurely. We’d partied too much, too soon. And our hubris was our undoing. It’s the mark of true champions that they don’t celebrate too much. They enjoy the moment, of course. They might sink a few beers to toast victory. But they don’t gloat. They don’t go over the top. Andrew Flintoff’s 24-hour bender – which culminated in the infamous Downing Street flowerbed incident – was the metaphorical embodiment of over-celebration. There comes a point, when the bunting has been taken down and the hangovers have cleared up, when the players need to get back into the nets and prepare for the next match. England’s problem was that, mentally, they never really stopped celebrating.
An insatiable hunger for success is what distinguishes the great from the merely very good. Winning one trophy isn’t enough. They want to win again and again. Roy Keane is an archetypal, obsessive winner. He never seemed content to admire his medals. Keano famously berated his United team-mates for losing their hunger after winning the treble in 1999. He moaned about their fondness for Rolex watches and fast cars. ‘I have seen United players getting complacent, thinking they’ve done it all and getting carried away by a bit of success’, he said. Keane won seven Premiership titles with Manchester United, and yet he never seemed satisfied.