Alex Massie

A time for despair but not for panic

A time for despair but not for panic
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All winning cricket teams are alike; each losing cricket team loses in its own way. It doesn't matter, right now, that Shane Watson and Michael Clarke will never be chums just as it did not matter very much, back in the day, that Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist couldn't stand one another. Victory spawns solidarity. Happiness too.

We are wired to over-react to defeat and under-react to victory. England have been trounced in Australia. Battered in Brisbane, assaulted in Adelaide and pummelled in Perth. The tour has become a travelling horror show and, god help us, there are still two tests left. A 5-0 whitewash is a distinct possibility. Don't believe anyone who suggests the Aussies might ease up now the little urn is back in their possession. Following three consecutive Ashes defeats they want 5-0.

England's hopes for this series were based on a kind of wishful thinking. We hoped and wished that Cook, Trott, Pietersen and Prior would bounce back from their disappointing summer series. None have done so. Trott left after Brisbane, psychologically done-in. Pietersen has endured a bone-headed series. Prior, no longer content with forgetting how to bat has forgotten how to keep wicket as well. As for Cook: the skipper has received some good balls but his poor run of form continues.

England won the summer series less because they were the better of two often ordinary teams but because they had players who made the decisive interventions at the decisive times. Ian Bell, with three centuries, held England's batting together and James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann each bowled England to victory. These exceptional performances covered up for a lot of indifferent performances.

The only lesson to be drawn from this debacle Down Under is that you cannot beat any Australian XI in Australia unless you play decent cricket. And England's cricket has been quite indecent. Scandalously so, in fact.

English cricket today is divided between those who think it is worse to go to sleep on bad cricketing news and those who think it worse to start the day by watching England fumble their way around Australia. No wonder there are calls for summary executions. If nothing else this might encourager les autres.

Just as shooting poor Admiral Byng on his own quarterdeck actually did benefit the Royal Navy so one cannot avoid the thought that some kind of blood sacrifice is needed now. If these performances aren't enough to persuade the selectors someone must go then what kinds of embarrassment would be required to convince them changes must be made?

But even though Prior and Swann should be handed the Black Spot it would be foolish to go too much further just yet. This may be a moment for despair, there is no need panic too. Besides, with the exception of Gary Ballance there aren't any other batsmen to introduce to the XI. You could, perhaps, ask Joe Root to open again and replace Michael Carberry with Ballance but this seems modestly harsh on the Hampshire opener who still, probably, deserves a chance to claim the opener's spot alongside the skipper for himself. (That Nick Compton was treated harshly is not a reason to treat Carberry severely).

This England side has been around a long time but it is not actually an old side. Only Swann is pushing 35. Anderson, Bell and Prior will be 32 this summer, Pietersen 34. They all have some cricket left in them if time is catching up with Pietersen's stubbornness.

It is rare, in fact, for every batsman to be in form at the same time but you need a sizeable contribution from someone or, failing that, everyone chipping in with 40 runs or so. Bell enjoyed an English summer to remember but three centuries in an Ashes series is the sort of form that, for most players, comes but once a career. Expecting a repeat performance in Australia might have been excessive.

Top order failures are an inevitable part of cricket. It is the nature of the game. But happy sides find ways of overcoming these setbacks. If you accept - as it is often reasonable to accept - that, on paper, numbers 1 to 5 will often be pretty evenly matched the difference between success and failure often comes down to how numbers 6, 7 and 8 perform with the bat. If 160/4 becomes 300/7 you have a chance; if it becomes 210 all out you don't.

As Brad Haddin (and Mitchell Johnson) have shown, numbers 7 and 8 are frequently the hinge batsmen on whose performance an innings can turn. This is where an advantage is confirmed or the place from which a salvage operation is launched.

It might seem unfair to blame bowlers such as Broad and Swann for a lack of runs. Nevertheless, these lower order contributions can be the difference between success and failure. In England they combined for 305 runs (from 14 innings); in Australia they have made 108 in 12 trips to the crease. It is not the only difference between then and now but it is a significant one.

And, of course, Swann (7 wickets at 80) and Anderson (7 at 54) have not repeated their match-winning heroics of last summer. That does not mean their careers are over. Anderson, for one, should thrive again in English conditions. But it is another obvious difference between then and now.

I suppose some people will argue that there is nothing to be lost now. Indeed they might go further and insist that better performances in Melbourne and Sydney will be "meaningless". This is not so. They will not be meaningless for the players concerned, not least since almost every member of this tour party is now playing for their placeĀ next season. Moreover, losing is a habit that, once acquired, can be hard to shake-off. It is difficult to introduce players into a losing side too. Selectorial stability counts for something, as Australia's past travails usefully demonstrate.

This is far from a vintage Australian side. Even in Australian conditions. The bowling is committed but hardly in the McGrath, Gillespie, Lee, Warne class. The batting remains temperamental. England have had opportunities in this series; they have not been good enough to take them just as Australia were not quite good enough to take their in England last summer.

So calls for Cook to go are silly. He had a run as bad as this in 2008 and emerged from it a better player. There is no good reason to suppose he cannot do so again. Other players - Prior, for instance - will have to do more to recapture their own confidence in their ability and, for what its worth, our confidence in that ability.

One of the things that distinguishes cricket from, say, baseball, is that it is not a game confined to children and a professional elite. Many of us also play, albeit each at our own level. The pressure of playing for your country is, on many levels, obviously greater than playing for your own modest club. But, relative to ability, the pressures are not always so very different and the mental challenges imposed by the game are, again relative to ability, similar too.

Which means many of us have some inkling of what this England team is suffering right now. Like many of us they may be finding the idea of playing cricket rather more pleasant than the reality of actually playing cricket. Confidence is low; their team-mates increasingly disagreeable.

The fielding demonstrates this. Winning teams hold catches and even if a chance is spilled the mere existence of the chance is treated as evidence there will be another chance coming soon. And that one will be taken. They are hungry, expecting the ball and ready to take the catch. Confidence surges and because you won last week and the week before you are, for some mysterious reason, more likely to win this week too.

But the rot can set in very quickly. Teams short on self-belief spill chances. Then they begin to wonder if that was the last chance they'll get. The ball becomes something to dread. Fielders don't want the next chance to come to them (if it comes at all). Pessimism triumphs; instincts are dulled. Attention wanders. Everything falls apart.

In ordinary circumstances Ian Bell would have taken the skier offered by Shane Watson in this test. If it had been a catch to win the match he'd have pouched it too. I have no doubt about that. But because of the way this game - and this tour - went it was no startling surprise he dropped it. Just another one of those things. The surprise was that Bresnan, pouncing on the loose ball, managed to hit the stumps and run Watson out. But then Bresnan was less contaminated than some others. If he'd played at Brisbane and Adelaide I dare say his throw would missed the stumps and gone for four. It's been that kind of series.

But that doesn't mean England have forgotten how to play, far less than we must steel ourselves for a renewed era of Australian supremacy. If they were to win this series England needed to avoid playing badly. They have not done so and so they have lost. Sometimes it really is simple. And then, because this is cricket, there is not much to be done save sit and wait and trust, like Mr Micawber, that something will turn up and improve matters.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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