Cricket: Flower's future on the line

By Derek Pringle in Perth

Andy Flower's time will be up if England do not show rapid improvement after their three shattering defeats. Photo / Getty
Andy Flower's time will be up if England do not show rapid improvement after their three shattering defeats. Photo / Getty

England have not yet been whitewashed in this Ashes series as they were seven years ago in Australia, but the size and nature of their three defeats suggest that it is a definite possibility with two tests remaining - a previously unthinkable proposition given that the urn had been in their possession since 2009.

The last time England lost a series to Australia, against a side full of alpha males determined to end their careers on a high, the England and Wales Cricket Board commissioned a report, the upshot of which saw Duncan Fletcher resign as head coach, something that Andy Flower, the team director, will surely consider if England do not improve markedly in the last two tests.

The other solution from the report was to throw money at the problem, between £20 million ($39.3m) and £25m ($49m) a year. Alastair Cook's team are a product of that, having a coach for every cause, a recipe for every mood and an agent for every whim.

Small advantages, such as the 82-page recipe book handed to each venue here, are sought in the hope that they may add up to something significant.

Yet on this tour England have needed to find urgent solutions to Mitchell Johnson's pace, the loss of swing for James Anderson and the lack of turn for Graeme Swann. That is what match-winning cricket is really about and they have failed.

England were also unable to raise their game or their spirits after going one down. They have been poor starters on tour often before, but they have usually recovered. As a result of their inability to do so here, tension in the dressing room has risen and transferred itself into errors in basics such as catching, something that Ian Chappell has long used as an indicator to a team's overall health.

One reason that England have struggled to raise their spirit is that back-to-back Ashes series are seriously demanding of mind and body. England's default solution to a problem is to work ever harder.

It is probably no coincidence then, that when England needed to raise their game, several players, such as Anderson, Matt Prior and Swann, looked unable to do so. If rotation is meant to keep key players fresh it has failed in this series.

Industry is laudable but there needs to be levity too, which Darren Lehmann has introduced with his old-school charm of discussing the game over a beer with former players. Lehmann may eschew the science that England take as read, but he has got his team playing with fervour, something the visitors lacked here.

Flower has always said that he wants well-rounded individuals playing for England, yet he bans his players from reading newspapers, as if avoiding words will somehow prevent sticks and stones from breaking their bones. If they cannot cope with what is written about them - and there has been both good and bad - what chance have they got with the Aussie public baying for their blood and their opponents sniping at them?

This series was at least a year in the planning but took just 14 days to lose, which shows what one or two elements can do to the best-laid plans. Three years ago, the preparation was exceptional and laid the ground perfectly for the 3-1 victory. This time, weak early opponents and poor weather, both out of their control, failed to ready them for the outbreak of Pommy-bashing that erupted when they arrived in Brisbane for the first Test. That - and Johnson's hostility - caught them unawares.

Johnson bowled fast and furious and has 23 wickets in the series. If England had been able to withstand his onslaught in the first innings at the Gabba a different story might have ensued. But they did not and, buoyed by his success, he blew them away again in Adelaide.

His fast bowling destabilised Jonathan Trott, as well as England's batting, and the No?3 returned home with a stress-related illness. Yet Trott's departure allowed Ben Stokes his chance, which he took with both bat and ball, scoring a superb maiden Test hundred in England's second innings at the Waca.

Stokes was a lone bright point here and his knock could have a huge bearing on England's showing for the rest of the series, the 22-year-old providing evidence to his elders that Australia's attack can be dominated.

Selection has been an issue for England, not so much for the main XI but for those on the fringe of the team. Failure often brings change but England's opportunities to do so were limited, despite bringing three tall bowlers supposedly tailored to the conditions, especially in Perth.

Steven Finn was not considered because of the loss of confidence in his action, while Boyd Rankin was felt not to be ready for test cricket. That left Chris Tremlett, whose anodyne effort in Brisbane left many wondering how he could have been selected when he was clearly down on pace.

Jonny Bairstow is another whom Flower seems unwilling to select, though Prior's latest failings, two missed stumpings and another horrible shot to get out, could force the issue for the final two Tests.

Kevin Pietersen has also struggled, with many questioning his commitment after watching him fall to shots that veered from the casual to the idiotic. At 33, and with a dodgy knee, his powers are probably on the wane, which could explain his shot against Nathan Lyon on Sunday, when he holed out at long on when there was a fielder on the fence and a wind into his face. Batsmen of his ilk need to confirm, to themselves as much as to anyone else, that they still have the skill and bravado to dominate bowlers such as Lyon and Peter Siddle, but he has not managed it here, beyond the odd shot.

Other senior players, such as Cook, have had a poor series as well. Indeed, the only high points have been Stokes's hundred, Stuart Broad's bowling before his injury and Joe Root and Michael Carberry in patches, slim pickings upon which to base a defence of the Ashes. As Sir Alex Ferguson will say, winning consistently is the most difficult challenge in sport as expectations are immense.

England had managed it for three Ashes series but fell foul this time of a highly motivated team playing hard, aggressive cricket that they found difficult to counter. For all the expertise and experience in their dressing room, they could not reach the necessary level to compete with Australia.

Nobody who watches them regularly would accuse them of not trying, but in the heat of confrontation they were found badly wanting and it may need another inquiry to discover why.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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