How do England rise from flames of Ashes destruction?

Late evening, Sunday 25 August 2013, England’s cricketers stroll around the turf at the Oval, smiles wide, celebrating their most comprehensive Ashes victory for 34 years. Indeed it is the first time since 1977 that the Australians have visited and failed to win a single Test. Thoughts turn to the return series the coming winter, with many predicting a similar outcome. More considerate observers warn of a closer contest, that 3-0 flattered England and there are problems to deal with, even if they are not as apparent as the problems facing the Australians.

Alastair Cook should be allowed to continue as England captain and mould a team in his own image

Fast forward 122 days and England are on the brink of a humiliating 5-0 whitewash, having being blown away by their vibrant opponents. Roles have reversed in the most dramatic way possible and not even the most fervent Australian could have been as optimistic as to predict the scoreline. Just how has it gone so badly wrong for England and where do they go now?

Quite frankly, it has gone wrong in every way possible for England. Early on into the tour, it was clear that the three tall bowlers, picked to exploit the traditionally quick, bouncy Australian pitches, were in no form whatsoever and they had to pick one of them for the opening Test with Tim Bresnan still struggling with injury.

That was just the tip of the iceberg; after the first Test defeat in Brisbane, Jonathan Trott flew back to the UK with a stress related illness, their most consistent number three in years back at home, leaving a huge gap in an already creaking batting line-up. A batting line-up which had been so solid for years suddenly started to fall apart in the face of hostile, aggressive and high intensity cricket from the hosts. England’s batsmen have failed to cope with the sheer pace of the resurgent Mitchell Johnson and the ingenuity of his opening bowling partner, Ryan Harris.

The men in which England have counted on to be their bankers in recent years, Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen and Matt Prior, have all seen form and confidence desert them, and to make matters worse, the targeting from the Australians hasn’t just been confined to the batsmen. James Anderson has looked a shadow of the bowler who the baggy green’s couldn’t lay a bat on just months previously, Graeme Swann was hit out of the attack by a positive Australian top order and surprisingly announced his retirement from all cricket with immediate effect after the Ashes were lost in Perth.

The longer the tour has gone on, the worse it has got for England; on more than one occasion, they have been in good positions, had good sessions – even good days – but managed to find a way to contrive be on the end of a hammering. Their best players look short of confidence, the players introduced have in the main, not done enough to suggest they will be around for the long-term.

Undoubtedly there will be a full review of this disastrous tour, with many feeling that team director Andy Flower will depart, but early talk suggests he is keen to carry on and has the support of ECB bosses. The captaincy of Cook has come under criticism too, many feeling he is too conservative and lacks authority. Cook is still learning on the job and should be given the chance to continue, if only because there is no obvious replacement at the moment. He should be given the opportunity to mould his own team with a different brand of cricket, with England’s current attritional style coming in for criticism as well.

England will hope Trott will return to the side in the near future, England’s best number three in recent times has left a gaping hole but they must also prepare for him having an indefinite spell away from international cricket. If that is to be the case then Ian Bell must move up. This will leave a spot at number five, but Gary Ballance looked assured during his first knock in the fifth Test at Sydney and has been unlucky not to get a chance sooner.

That brings us onto the enigma that is Pietersen. Once again during this series, KP has managed to exasperate England fans with his almost carefree manner of dismissal. He will be 34 this year and doubts remain over his long-term future with England – there is a case for moving on without this mercurial talent.

Prior, having being named England’s player of the year in 2012, had an awful 2013. He was dropped for the final two tests although England will hope he can return to form quickly, as Jonny Bairstow isn’t Test class with bat or gloves – at least at the moment. There are a number of good keeper/batsmen coming through the county circuit, such as Steve Davies, Craig Kieswetter and Jos Buttler, so competition will be hot if Prior’s lack of form turns out to be permanent.

Stuart Broad continues to go from strength to strength as a Test match bowler and has at times carried the attack almost single-handedly. Anderson on the other hand has cut a worn and dejected figure, possibly the demands of being an international bowler have finally started to catch up with him as he approaches his 32nd birthday. It is time for England to start looking for his long-term replacement.

The third seamer spot has been a real cause for concern during this series. Bresnan is a solid performer but one feels he is picked for balance due to his batting skills at number eight, rather than the potency of his bowling. Indeed if you asked many cricket fans who the three best English seamer’s are, it is unlikely that he would make many lists. Credit must go to Chris Tremlett for fighting back from a serious back injury, but his appearance in Brisbane showed that he isn’t what he once was. Boyd Rankin impressed in the ODI series in England and probably deserves a run of games, but early impressions suggest he doesn’t quite have the pace or accuracy to worry top level batsmen on a regular basis. One bowler who does have the pace is Steven Finn, but he has spent the bulk of 2013 working on his run up and was also horribly out of form. England will hope Finn can bounce back this coming summer as he has wicket taking ability and bowls at good speed – an improvement in consistency would see a very fine bowler indeed.

England’s biggest problem, however, will be replacing Graeme Swann. England’s best spinner since the Derek Underwood re-invented the art of traditional off-spin and was a huge part of England’s successful four man attack. England called up James Tredwell and Scott Borthwick in his absence, the latter debuting in Sydney but as suspected the Durham leggie who spent last season playing as a number three batsman who bowled a bit, looked far from ready. The safe option for England would be Monty Panesar; experienced and able to tie an end down, he could well be the perfect stop-gap until the likes of Borthwick and Simon Kerrigan have honed their skills.

Despite all the gloom and despondency, there has been one bright light for England in the emergence of a genuine all-rounder in Ben Stokes. Brought into the side in Adelaide, he ended the tour with a maiden Test century and a six wicket haul. England must be careful not to expect too much of the 22 year old, but finally they seem to have found an all-rounder who will add balance at number six and hasn’t been overawed by the pressures of being new to Test cricket and the dire situation the team has found itself in.

England will be glad to get home and forget about this series, but for all the negativity and criticism their performances have brought, it is a chance for their captain to start to build his own team. This is a transitional period for England and some big decisions should be made in response to this tame hand-over of the Ashes. England have to sit down and show courage in selection and planning for the future; courage that they sadly failed to display on the pitch.

By Niki Williams

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