It is a challenge to write about England’s preposterously dismal performance in the Test series without dealing more in the vocabulary of psychiatry than in that of cricket. Trying to understand how a reasonably good, but not top-notch, Australian team could mince an England side that had, a few months earlier, won the Ashes 3-0 does, however, lead one inevitably to questions of mental fitness rather than of physical aptitude, not least since one of England’s prime batsmen, Jonathan Trott, went home with depression early on: though there is a little more to it than that.
England’s temporary dominance in the contest was deeply deceptive. They were exceptionally lucky to win in July and August. Pitches were prepared in the series in England that favoured the home team and did nothing to prepare them for conditions in Australia. Mitchell Johnson is an exceptional bowler who made a key difference by the time the battle relocated to Down Under. He embodied the psychological effect: England’s batsmen, even by the time they got to Adelaide, were defeated by him even before he had walked back to his mark. Yet what made an even bigger impact on the eventual outcome was that Australia never for a moment stopped believing in themselves; whereas one sensed England stopped doing that by the second innings at Brisbane.
It is the cause of that mental defeat that needs to be discovered; but I fear it is complex. It is found in English society, English culture and in the management of sport. Sport may seem to overwhelm much of England, with the back pages of newspapers stuffed with it and endless satellite television channels devoted to it; but this culture obsessed with the cult of celebrity values sportsmen and women not so much for how well they play but, once they have established some sort of reputation as a player, how they fit into the wider voyeuristic world of the rich and famous. This is, of course, more true of soccer, where every fashion statement made by a player or his wife or girlfriend gains instant currency, and (following Britain’s Olympic success in 2012) even now of athletics. Cricket is the poor relation, but that does not prevent some players from allowing their significance in the sport (temporary, in most cases) to have them believe they are more considerable than they are, better players than they are, more indispensable than they are and, paradoxically, that cricket is a less important part of their life than in fact it is.
Therefore, for some cricketers, as with some English sportsmen in other fields, losing is not the acutely shaming business it might be for players from other cultures. If a poor player loses his place in the England team — and at times it has been harder to get out of the team than to get into it — he can, at least for a while, expect a serious income from activities unrelated to his prowess. If some of them had the intelligence to wonder what might happen after that, they would have the intelligence to play more sensibly than they routinely do.
Intelligence, or lack of it, played its part in England’s catastrophe. The first name on the charge sheet must be that of the captain, Alastair Cook. Cook has been a notably successful captain. This defeat may be a temporary setback; or it might be conclusive proof that Cook cannot function under pressure. Some alarming aspects of his captaincy became apparent during this series. He was either not confronting some of his underperforming batsmen with reality, or they were ignoring him when they did. Why did Kevin Pietersen keep playing rash shots, getting caught in the outfield, when his team needed him to bat on and on? Why, when Pietersen announced at Melbourne that he would not change the way he played, did Cook not tell him to get on the plane home?
Cook is loyal to his players, which is admirable. However, why did he make a point of saying he would not listen to opinions from those outside the team about how to make things better, but that the problem was one the team would need to solve for itself? This team is finished: Andy Flower, the coach, who is also lucky still to have a job, called the debacle in Sydney ‘the end of an era’. So Cook’s wishes are not only distressingly inadequate, they are also irrelevant. Such efforts as he may have made to tell his batsmen to play more responsibly manifestly failed. He could not even take his own advice. His field placings were often poor and his management of the bowling occasionally bizarre. It is hard to conclude other than that if he retains his place as captain, it would be because English cricket offers no better option.
England was not helped by other factors. Playing two such high-pressure series back to back was absurd scheduling, and it was helpful to Australia to be at home for the second, more tiring leg of the contest. Those who run English cricket must also be more thoughtful about the fixture list: a five-Test series with just a silly and pointless two-day match in the middle of it was ridiculous, and allowed poorly performing players no chance to get back into form. If they come back to Australia in four years’ time without four-day matches at least between the first and second and second and third Tests, they will be asking for trouble.
The obsession with money that controls the thinking of administrators militates against first-class cricket, as everything is made to revolve around the increasingly boring and repetitive 50-over format, and the fatuous 20-over one. That is bad enough for the future of English first-class cricket.
Worse, though, in that regard is a cultural problem: that young people in most English schools hardly play cricket, that the first-class game relies on a shrinking pool of privately educated young men to keep going, and that interest in the first-class game is waning, not least because the county championship in England is so tedious in form and bereft of star players (who are mostly under central contracts, and therefore unavailable for their counties) as to be nearly unwatchable. It is all very well to think of how things might be on the next Ashes tour; but I cannot help speculating on how many millions fewer in England will care in the least about it. Much more of this, and few will care at all. English cricket starts to smell as though it is living on borrowed time.
Simon Heffer is a former deputy editor of The Spectator and author of High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain (Random House).