Despite the very best efforts of the hype machine, this is not 2005. Retaining the Ashes, and don’t forget this is the first time in my cricket watching life that England have clung onto the prize in three successive series, was an oddly muted affair. Of course the Manchester rain ensured that the Australians were denied the opportunity to complete the deserved victory they needed to keep matters alive, but even that would have just delayed the inevitable. The problem is that the home side is simply better but is crumpling under the weight of its own negativity and siege mentality, while the visitors are winning the propaganda war, and the tactical manoeuvres, yet lack the resources on the frontline. Beating this lot is probably no big deal, but doing it in this manner is even less satisfying.
Having endured countless years of mediocrity or worse, it seems churlish in the extreme to criticise an English eleven which does, more than occasionally, win Test matches and, however briefly, ascended to world number one status. Hard-nosed professionalism has driven the revival; attention to detail has replaced the shambolic hoping for the best which once passed for preparation and selection strategy. But there is something incredibly joyless watching this team go about its business, its spontaneity strait-jacketed by overbearing plans and lack of imagination. Its dealings with the media, regarded as the enemy with an agenda, according to that gamekeeper-recently-turned-poacher Andrew Strauss, amount to little more than reluctant, anodyne interviews with all the charisma of an official press release (Graeme Swann largely excepted). This should be a wonderful, ebullient time for all associated with the national squad. Instead their snarling demeanour would make you think it’s all being done under duress.
Alastair Cook is an abysmal captain. I don’t suppose he can help that. Since he assumed the mantle he has led superbly by example, the runs off his own bat strengthening his position but also, in helping to build large totals, partially negating the impact of his prosaic appreciation of a situation, his inability to cast off the crippling caution which simply throws up more of the same. Contrast that with the constantly busy mind of his counterpart Michael Clarke, who lacks the security of exceptional talent around him so has to conjure up an edge with some creative decision-making. And it’s narrowing the gap. He can do the other bit just as well, indeed an innings from this elegant player only emphasises the difference in personality, his strokes full of panache as Cook dourly accumulates. If it gets the job done, the pedestrian approach hardly warrants a mention. When, as at Old Trafford, it is exposed as a one-dimensional, visionless bore, it rather tempers any cause for celebration.
Now not everyone will be in form simultaneously, so to castigate Trott for lack of runs or Prior for some shabby glovework is neither here nor there. Imagine if Michael Vaughan had control of these raw materials. Eight years ago England were clearly inferior to an Australian legends’ convention which included the likes of Hayden, Ponting, Gilchrist, Warne and McGrath, yet by maximising the contributions of each individual and harnessing them to an objective, the natural order was overturned. The skipper inspired, not just by his deeds in the middle, but by his willingness to challenge the orthodoxy, to ask his bowlers to think outside the box, to set fields without recourse to a committee meeting the week before the game; in essence, to react in the moment. Maybe that’s easier if you’re the underdog, but it’s now happening in reverse.
It isn’t enough because the gap in quality is still sufficient to counter the effect. But are we getting the best from Pietersen’s belligerence, Bell’s classy touch, Root’s boundless promise, Anderson’s mastery of his art or Swann’s general exuberance? All have contributed gainfully but all within the context of safety first stifling their freedom of expression. Although the batting track looked a belter last week, did losing the toss have to mean playing for the draw? Such a notion was padded back with all the platitudes expected when deferring from the party line is tantamount to heresy, but the facts strongly suggest that defending a lead, though the beleaguered opposition was there to be put out of its misery, was the first and only consideration. Rogers’ breezy knock set the tone for the Antipodeans; England meanwhile stuck to their agreed formula even if it meant working their four specialist bowlers into the ground. Then, with backs similarly to the wall, they opted for crease occupation rather than counter-attack.
Root took an age to get off the mark. Test cricket is supposed to take you out of your comfort zone but this wanton emasculation of his natural game gave Siddle, Harris and Starc a spring in their step. Inevitably, Pietersen played the maverick, but in doing so made it abundantly clear that elimination of risk is an admission of vulnerability. The pace trio, and not necessarily this particular combination either, constitutes the tourists’ strong suit, and you could feel the momentum shift. Belief, that precious commodity, was beginning to seep back into Aussie veins; England had helped nurse them off the drip. Without the intervention of the cloudburst, would the result have been different? I think so, as regardless of their uncanny predisposition to stoic rearguard actions of late, the home side had thought themselves down a cul-de-sac. Their sheepish acknowledgement from the balcony spoke volumes in the late afternoon gloom.
Even if the vanquished are among the worst representatives from Down Under ever to pull on their whites, and failure confirmed within fourteen days hardly improves their case, I like the cut of their jib. They front up, they make no excuses, and they give characteristically candid opinions. Conversely, when Andy Flower tells us that his boys played some ‘outstanding cricket’, we bristle at being played for fools. England are too good not to close this series out properly, despite themselves. Still, for the sake of fourteen runs at Trent Bridge it could have been very different. There is, remember, a swift turnaround before we do it all again, starting at Brisbane in November. Ten-nil was never truly realistic, but it’s in the realms of fantasy land now, and the lesson of 2005 is that reputation guarantees nothing. And that goes double if you lack the courage of your convictions.