The Ashes 2013/14: Why and How Did England Lose the Urn?

Freddie Wilde@@fwildecricketContributor IDecember 17, 2013

The Ashes 2013/14: Why and How Did England Lose the Urn?

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    Australia (385 & 369-6) have beaten England (251 & 353) by 150 runs and regain the Ashes, winning the series 3-0 with two matches still to play. 

    Australia have regained the Ashes. And they've done so in style. How good where Australia, how bad were England? Who is to blame for the defeat? Who were the heroes?

    Click 'Begin Slideshow' for the key points from Day Five, and a review of where it all went wrong for England.

Seven Years and Three Test Matches

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    Australia have regained the Ashes, and deservedly so on the back of three Test matches in which they have outplayed England in every department.

    Darren Lehmann and Michael Clarke deserve enormous credit for creating a winning team out of a dressing room that nine months ago had definite culture and relationship problems.

    So too, of course, do the players, who right down the team have contributed to this victory with skilful, aggressive and domineering cricket.

    Mitchell Johnson, in particular, must be acknowledged in this victory. For while the entire team have performed well, they have rode his wave that began to break on the second day of the series when his four wickets helped spark an England collapse from 82-2 to 136 all out.

    Australia have played well as a team, and the disparity between them and England has been greater than simply Johnson, but his brilliance began the divergence, and the importance of that cannot be overstated.

Stokes and What Might Have Been

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    On the final day of England’s Ashes defence, all that realistically mattered was how long England’s lower-order would last.

    But Ben Stokes had different ideas, and his maiden Test hundred not only was an innings of promise and skill, but one of belligerence and fortitude in the face of an Australian side on the brink of victory.

    Indeed, when lunch was taken with Stokes and Tim Bresnan not out, England’s unlikely chances of victory had in fact become ever so slightly more likely. And that is testament largely to the pace at which Stokes scored his runs and his resistance to the impending doom. 

    Yet as frustrating as Stokes was promising, was what his innings showed, and how it demonstrated that runs could be scored against this Australian bowling attack, and that they definitely weren’t as unplayable and ferocious as the rest of the batting order have made them appear.

    It also exposed that the idea of English batsmen being unable to adjust to the Perth wicket is a fallacy. Stokes’s successes were an example of what could have been. 

Keeping Contrast

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    England’s dream finally died when Brad Haddin took a superb sharp catch of Stokes’s under edge. Haddin’s revival of form with the bat and with the gloves, and Matt Prior’s comparative decline, is representative of the successes and struggles of either team.

    One ageing keeper has been reinvigorated, the other has appeared past his best. The same can arguably be said of their respective teams.

So, Where Did It All Go Wrong for England?

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    As is always the case in sport, when one team are good is at least partially because the other team are bad or vice versa. It’s very difficult to tell whether England have been bad because they are bad, or whether England have been bad because Australia’s brilliance has forced them into being so.

    Luck also plays a part: England have lost all three tosses in the series.

    What is certain is that Australia have been excellent, probably more so than many members of the media and fans will have you believe. Spearheaded by Mitchell Johnson (and David Warner), and reinforced by carefully laid plans and a team that has hit form at the right time, Australia’s excellence contributed to exposing and then perpetuating and exacerbating problems and weaknesses amongst England’s team, planning and strategy. 

    England, however, have looked jaded, weary and tired from the very beginning of the series. For while Australia have also played a lot of cricket recently, their personnel has been more varied, and even they have not managed quite as many days on the road as England.  

    There is also an argument that England’s faith in attention to detail and planning has seen them become stuck in a rut of ignorance to alternative strategies and plans. Their faith in Plan A, perhaps due to the fact that Plan A is numerically and statistically based has become too great for their own good.

    It is a strategy that has perhaps left them vulnerable to attack by teams with something out of the ordinary, or unpredictable, something, say, like Mitchell Johnson.

    I do have some sympathy for the management however, for England’s strategy is such that they focus largely on one match, or at most, one series at a time. Results wise, until now, it’s a strategy that has by those measures worked, and on a very simple level, to change would therefore be strange.

    Whether the management should be more broadly and perspectively focused—for the signs of a steady but unspectacular decline have been present for a while—is a debate for another day. 

    There are few who would argue England have a better set of players than those who have played in the three Tests so far. Whether these players being the best England have to offer yet have proved so inept demonstrates a more general malaise in the players pushing through from county cricket is another issue entirely. 

    But ultimately, bad form breeds bad form. Low confidence breeds low confidence. Losses breed losses. And when the team you are playing doesn’t let up in their dominance nor skill, and you are tired and jaded, coming back becomes almost impossible. 

What Now?

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    England must let the pain of defeat sink in and imprint it on their minds before using and channeling it for the future. Shane Warne and Ricky Ponting both claimed the pain of the Ashes defeat in 2005 was what drove them to revenge in the 2006/7 whitewash, and England must utilise defeat similarly. Share thoughts and pains, get it out in the open, and let it hurt. 

    In the short-term it is onto Melbourne and to Boxing Day. It is difficult to see how England, with the squad they have at their disposal, can actually improve the personnel for the next Test. 

    Despite the general problems with the batting, only really Matt Prior is droppable at this point in time. Alastair Cook is the captain. Michael Carberry has looked promising—more promising than Nick Compton and Joe Root did opening.

    The potential havoc Kevin Pietersen can wreak is too great to dispense with. Ian Bell is Ian Bell and is in relative form, as is Joe Root. Ben Stokes has just scored a hundred. Prior is droppable but who do you select in his place?

    Jonny Bairstow is the reserve keeper but will he do a better job than Prior at this point in time? It’s hard to tell. And there’s an argument to be made that playing Bairstow may do more damage to a player for the future than Prior will damage England’s chances of victory. 

    Bowling isn’t even the biggest problem. But England could rest, or even send home, James Anderson, who looks as if he’s bowled 10,789 overs this year. Which he probably has. Graeme Swann could be similarly treated, but there’s a feeling his retirement is imminent.

    Tim Bresnan had a poor comeback Test here, but was arguably rushed back into the side, and he bowled well at the MCG in 2010.

    The reserve bowlers are at least more of a known commodity than the batsmen for whom we know little of and can thus have little faith in them improving things. 

    The most salient reason for change is that Stokes, unburdened by time and defeat was fresh, punchy and positive in the face of Australia’s dominance.

    But bringing in another young inexperienced player simply because he’s young an inexperienced makes little sporting sense. Change for change’s sake is likely to do more harm than good.

    Ultimately, changes for Melbourne need to be in performance more than personnel. 

    In the long-run, serious questions do need to be asked. This tour has, for various reasons, been a disaster, but it has by no means been anywhere near as bad the 1990s as many pundits are extravagantly claiming.

    Successful structures, academies and systems that have proven to have a positive influence are still in place, while during the '90s problems were deeply infrastructural—they are more superficial, although not entirely, this time around. 

    Andy Flower’s position as head coach will no doubt be a matter of debate but there is almost no possibility that the ECB will fire him, unless he refuses to resign, which is highly improbable, if requested. He appeared non-committal on his future when asked at the end of the match, but being guarded is his style.

    Although many feel England have reached a glass ceiling with Flower, he will be adverse to leaving the team in the predicament it now finds itself in. And, like selection for Melbourne, there has to be a better candidate.

    There will be calls too for Cook to relinquish duties of some kind. While the Test captaincy will certainly remain his the ECB may see it fit to remove the ODI captaincy from him.

    However, with the ODI World Cup so close, and a stated major aim of the board’s is to win it, such a move will be considered carefully. 

    It is team and strategy changes that are perhaps the most likely long-term developments. With more players to choose from than the current squad, although Carberry has proved promising, England may move towards youth for the Cook’s opening partner.

    Prior too will certainly struggle to keep his place beyond the end of this series. While jettisoning Swann and Anderson similarly to Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison could be an appropriate signal of intent to move on.

    But widespread change should be carefully considered. On long tours bad form breed bad form, and all of England’s out-of-form players are not old, and fit enough to enjoy at least a little more success in England shirts.

    Things do need to change. But transition should be a process, not an event. 

A Final Note

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    Australia may have regained the Ashes, and could whitewash England, but the success of a group of 12 or 13 players and 10 support staff does not mean the structural problems and deficiencies in Australian cricket written and spoken about in depth during their 3-0 loss in the English summer have disappeared.