Sport

The Ashes of English cricket

England’s disintegration Down Under underlines their failure to develop the winning mentality of a great team.

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.

Keane may have been infuriated by complacency, but one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s enduring achievements was to sustain the winning culture at United. Fergie wasn’t a great tactician but he was able keep his teams hungry for success. He rebuilt the squad several times. He ruthlessly dispensed with players whom he felt were past their prime, too big for their boots or who’d lost their hunger. He wouldn’t tolerate complacency. As Michael Carrick once explained, he only acquired his craving for trophies after arriving at United. ‘Strange as it is, as soon as I won that first league it left me hungry for more. Whether that is from being here, or just the feeling that came with the opportunity for getting more here, I don’t know’, said the United midfielder. ‘But the satisfaction of winning is such a good feeling you want it again and again and you get hungrier to win it again’. It was Fergie’s ability to instill this winning ethos which underpinned United’s enduring domination of English football.

Teams that consistently win trophies acquire a mythical status. They appear to possess an aura of invincibility. Opposing teams felt cowed and overawed when they emerged from the tunnel at Old Trafford. Psychologically, they were already beaten before the match had even kicked off. Although England topped the ICC rankings in 2011, they were never able to build a similar aura. As coach Andy Flower is now discovering, it’s a damn sight harder staying at the top than it is getting there.

One of the ways to guard against complacency is to develop a pipeline of talent to ensure fierce competition for places. Yet, if you look at the current England cricket squad, there is simply no strength in depth. A number of the senior players simply haven’t performed in this series. Jonathan Trott has gone home while Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen, Matt Prior, Graeme Swann and Jimmy Anderson have all been struggling for form. Inevitably, there will be a clamour for the selectors to wield the axe. But who is ready to step up? County cricket simply isn’t the production line of talent that it once was.

The final two games of the Ashes tour are little more than an exercise in damage limitation. England desperately need to avoid the humiliation of a 5-0 series whitewash. They need to restore some pride and rediscover some form. Some of the technical problems are easily fixed. You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that England need to bat better. They need to be patient. Defend with a straight bat. Pick the bad balls. It’s not rocket science; it’s called test cricket. However, while the current crop of England players can certainly perform at a higher level, it will take longer to regain their swagger and self-belief. Just when we’d grown accustomed to beating the Aussies, the old English fear and self-doubt has returned to haunt us. The resilient, self-assured, fiercely competitive team that topped the ICC rankings two years ago seems a dim and distant memory.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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