Monday, 6 January 2014

Four lessons from England's Ashes debacle


So England's cricketing agony in this Australian summer's Ashes is over. They'll be glad of it, because they've been kicked around an entire continent for over a month, and at some point the bloodletting had to stop. They've been hammered. Marmalised. Battered. Smashed. Slice it any way you like: it's been a horror show on an even greater scale than their 2006-2007 whitewashing. Grim doesn't cover it.

But what can we learn from all this, and what does the historian's long view grant us that other experts maybe miss? It's no good just cowering (or cursing) under the duvet - as every middle-of-the-night smartphone update confirmed. Let's try grouping our top four takeaways under four bullet-point headings:

Attack is the best form of defence. England were in at least four of the five contests at one point: in some parallel universe, they've just easily retained the Ashes. They reduced Australia, again and again, to pitiful totals of around about 100 for five or six wickets down. The difference then? Their attacking wicketkeeper, Brad Haddin (above), playing along the lines England used to enjoy with Matt Prior before his alarming dip in form, and some more-than-capable tailend batsmen prepared to chance their arms, trust their eyes and indulge their talents. The result? Australia's last five batsmen scored more than all of England's. It's not that they started swinging and slogging - England tried more than enough of that - but that controlled, clear-eyed aggression carried the day.

A lot of everything is written about a lot of nothing. Pundits are now all lauding Australia's coach, Darren Lehmann, to the skies - which is only right and proper given the absolutely crushing nature of his triumph. But consider how easy he had the mood music. He came in to find an entirely disillusioned group of players who were a laughing stock in their own land (and something worse and less printable abroad). He just said 'I'm an old-fashioned sort of bloke, let's have a great time easing up on all the "discipline" you've been subjected to'. He prepared, prepared and prepared, including upping fitness levels, it's true: but he also eased up too. Over-inflating his role would be a mistake based on ex post facto reasoning. Had he lost this series, he'd be blamed for a laid-back and 'backward' attitude, indulging players' egos, while England's apparently closed but 'modern', scientific and planned approach, which even encompassed a diet book, would be all the rage.

Don't go changing. When England lost or dropped some of their top players, they didn't seem to have much of a well-worked-out answer. They chopped and changed for the sake of it - bringing in a new wicketkeeper-batsman, for instance, who seemed no better (and was probably a little bit worse) than the incumbent. And they 'blooded' (given the circumstances, an entirely appropriate term) a new middle-order batsmen and a young leg-spinner in the malstrom of a Sydney Test they were almost certainly going to lost anyway - and lose badly. The lesson? You change if you want to - but you need to have a route-map to do it with. Change for change's sake is just panic.

Sequencing matters. Historians are good on this one. The temporal factor - the order in which things happen - is the key here. England had a good first day of this Ashes. They were pootling along on the second day, in their now-accustomed relative complacency. Then mistakes let Australia in - as they did in Adelaide, when a series of fielding howlers let Australia off the hook. Yet again. The landslide set in motion was of epic sporting proportions. A series of errors led to worse ones; then to disillusionment with the whole tour; and then to the inevitable, unavoidable impression that the English team just wanted to get the hell out of there as quickly as they possibly could. Turn it all round - see James Anderson or Stuart Broad catch fire on day two, or all the catches stick in Adelaide - and all the pressure would have been back on Australia.

By the way, this isn't just nationalistic bombast: this blog said exactly the same thing about Australia's comically inept tour of England, which they eventually left with a little bit of credit. Big events don't need big causes - though analysing them requires an awareness of the types of causes that are likely to effect change.

Oh, and Happy New Year, by the way.

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