It’s certainly been a case of stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before on this Tour. England were, yet again, unable to stop the onslaught and once again fell by the wayside as the Australians walked all over them for four and a half days. The only difference now is that they no longer have the Ashes in their possession, though the tame handover of the urn has looked almost inevitable since the second day of the first test.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to think up excuses for this side. Something has looked badly wrong throughout this tour. It’s not just the result, it’s the attitude and demeanour of the players. They’ve looked like beaten men all series. Changes will be made, but you get the sense it can’t just be minor tinkering. Some part of this England set-up needs an overhaul.
The first two to go should be David Saker and Graham Gooch. Saker has really steadied the ship since he took over as bowling coach and has turned Anderson and Broad into world-class bowlers, but his choices on this tour have been completely baffling. The decision to bring three big, bang-it-into-the-deck bowlers and then not play any in Perth seems almost criminal. England’s bowlers have had their tactics completely wrong, consistently bowling too short and failing to come up with any sort of effective plan to counter the Australians aggressive mentality. Saker has also grappled with the riddle of Steven Finn. England need to solve the Finn paradox soon, as so much of their future success rests on getting Finn back to where he was. Saker has so far failed to find a way to do this, with Finn going backwards at a rate of knots over the past 9 months. England need fresh ideas in the bowling department without doubt, and these aren’t going to come from Saker.
The story is much the same with Gooch. The work he’s done with the batsmen over the past few years has been admirable, but there is no way he can survive this tour. Looking at the calibre of the line-up and how badly they have performed, Gooch should and will go.
Those two departures seem inevitable, and aren’t going to be enough of a sacrifice for this tour. If Andy Flower stays, you get the sense that there will have to be some major changes made to the side. It’s for this reason that Flower will be the one to go. Most of the core group have done enough in their careers to get a chance. For Flower, it simply feels like we’ve reached the final act: that this was probably going to be his encore, regardless. However, the manner of defeat has made his departure seem almost inevitable.
Flower has led England through a golden period of cricket. But, the policy of containment and conservatism he employs has, yet again, been blown away by an aggressive side that doesn’t make many mistakes. Flower is a proud man, and in my opinion, will walk before he is pushed. Even though it’s a disappointing end, it nevertheless feels like an end, and judging by the performance and general demeanour of the players in this tour, they think so too.
That’s not to say a few of those players can relax. Matt Prior in particular is in danger of losing his place, given how his performance with both bat and gloves has completely nosedived this year. Even the rough-around-the-edges Jonny Bairstow looks a better option at this point as keeper, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if he was given the gloves for the fourth test. Swann and Anderson both need to improve considerably, and could do with a long rest, which they’ll thankfully get after the series ends. Pietersen too needs to up his game, but replacing him would be such a tall order that, for now, he keeps his place.
In the short-term, it might be the right time to give the fringe players of the squad a chance. The EPP squad’s star performers Sam Robson and Tymal Mills are exciting prospects, but it would be foolish to throw them into a toxic series when they’re not ready yet. With Tremlett out of his depth and Finn still hamstrung by his various troubles, Boyd Rankin is the only alternative out of the bowlers on the touring party. Much has been made of his selection, and at least with nothing to lose, we will get something of an answer as to whether he is capable of playing test match cricket. Bairstow could well come in for Prior too. Gary Ballance could be shoe-horned in somewhere, possibly for Tim Bresnan, but it seems like, once again, he’ll be the one to miss out.
Even though this time there is no follow-up series to worry about, there is a genuine sense that the next two games are of upmost importance for a lot of the England team. With confidence at an all-time low, England need to stop the complete humiliation of a whitewash and need to win some of the psychological battles that they have lost hands down in the first three tests. Australia were able to do this in the summer to begin their fightback. If England want to do the same, they’ll have to show the same mental strength their rivals did.