5/12: the day English cricket died

England's performance in the Ashes was the daddy of all batting collapses.

Duleep Allirajah

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Last week I suggested that it might be too early to start writing obituaries to English cricket. I was wrong. The obituarists have been typing away furiously since England’s dramatic capitulation in Adelaide.

When my alarm went off on Tuesday morning I fully expected to hear that the second Ashes test was winding down towards its inevitable conclusion: a draw. The fact that ticket prices at the Adelaide Oval had been slashed was a sure sign that not even the Aussies expected any other result. Instead, the mood on BBC Radio 5 Live’s breakfast programme was funereal. It was like the day Diana died, only worse. The unthinkable had happened. England had self-destructed in the most extraordinary fashion. Having started the day on 59-1, with a lead of 97 over Australia, England lost their last 9 wickets for 60 runs. Remember the date: 5 December – or 5/12, as it ought to be known – will go down in history as the day that English cricket died (again).

How does one even begin to explain such an abject capitulation? Somehow, after declaring their first innings on 551 for six, England contrived to lose this match. Yes, the lifeless batting track that had yielded 1,123 runs in the first four days was starting to take spin. Yes, England’s batsmen were once again undone by the genius of Shane Warne, the greatest spin bowler of our era. Yes, the ball was reverse swinging. But, none of this can excuse the most jawdroppingly inept batting collapse you are ever likely to witness. Well though the Australians bowled, the England batsmen quite simply threw the game away. In England we’ve become accustomed to batting collapses in recent years. It’s one of the things we do well, like losing penalty shoot-outs in football. But this was the daddy of all batting collapses. A flurry of cheaply lost top order wickets in the opening session effectively gifted the Ashes to Australia.

The Aussie media couldn’t quite believe their luck. ‘Stage-struck England batted like turtles with chronic fatigue syndrome while the Australians were like light horsemen trying to stampede wounded opponents’, crowed Robert Craddock in the Courier Mail, gleefully mixing his metaphors. A little harsh on chronically fatigued turtles in my opinion. Greg Baum of the Sydney Morning Herald offered a novel explanation for England’s cave-in. ‘Like medieval royals with syphilis, they went suddenly mad’, he wrote. Well, it’s as good as most other theories I’ve heard. Maybe the England players all came out in sympathy with Marcus Trescothick.

Invariably, the knives are out for England coach Duncan Fletcher. Many are questioning the selection of Ashley Giles, Geraint Jones and James Anderson at the expense of Monty Panesar, Chris Read and Sajid Mahmood. In particular, the decision to overlook Panesar has been widely criticised. Former England all-rounder Ian Botham was nonplussed at Monty’s omission: ‘I am asking questions. A lot of people are asking questions. Is Monty here or has he gone home? I am totally confused. I was confused at the start of the series and I am even more confused now.’

Over the space of 12 months Monty has undergone a remarkable transformation from court jester to cult hero. Now he has been elevated, somewhat ludicrously, to the status of cricketing Messiah. The public clamour for Monty’s inclusion bears a striking similarity to the rather desperate pinning of English World Cup hopes on a half-fit Wayne Rooney.

Maybe Duncan Fletcher was wrong to select Giles ahead of Panesar. Giles, who is clearly ring rusty after a long injury lay-off, hasn’t exactly terrorised the Aussie batsmen. But I don’t think England lost this game because of Monty’s absence. Could England have bowled out Australia more cheaply in their first innings with Monty in the attack? We’ll never know. But judging by the way that Shane Warne toiled away fruitlessly in England’s first innings (53 overs, 1 wicket for 167 runs) it’s far from certain that Monty would have made the difference.

Ultimately, England’s defeat was due to their batsmen collectively losing their nerve and their discipline. Quite simply, England panicked. Look at how Bell, Pietersen, Flintoff and Jones all lost their wickets: not through great bowling but rash decision-making. The recognised batsmen threw their wickets away and the tail failed to wag. I’m not suggesting that Monty should be excluded but that England’s problems run deeper than the omission of one bowler. To me, the entire bowling attack lacked teeth. Steve Harmison has lost the plot, Simon Jones is sorely missed, and James Anderson isn’t delivering. Until Matthew Hoggard’s seven-wicket haul, England had been relying almost exclusively on a semi-fit Andrew Flintoff to provide a cutting edge.

Even with Monty in the team, the bowling strike force is a pale shadow of the Ashes-winning side. But, even more alarming than the lame bowling is the mental fragility that revealed itself with such calamitous consequences on the final day in Adelaide. This England team was supposed to be made of sterner stuff, but their collapse showed that our cricketers haven’t quite kicked the choking habit.

The question now is whether English morale can recover from such a psychological hammer blow. ‘The truly catastrophic nature of the six-wicket defeat yesterday will haunt Andrew Flintoff’s side for the remainder of this tour and beyond’, predicted Guardian cricket correspondent Mike Selvey gloomily. ‘Adelaide 06 deserves to haunt this generation of English cricketers as Headingley 81 once haunted the Australians’, opined his Guardian colleague Gideon Haigh.

I’m surprised nobody has drawn the obvious parallels with the humiliating massacre by Zulu warriors of the British garrison at Isandlwhana in 1879. As ignominious English defeats go, Adelaide 06 is right up there with the rout at Isandlwhana, the ill-fated charge of the Light Brigade in 1854, and the fall of Singapore in 1942.

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