Ashes 2013-2014: England thrashing spells death of a team

 

This is no longer just a losing Ashes series. It is the death of a team: staked out in the unrelenting Australian sun, guts ripped open, dingoes feasting.

In losing the first three Tests by a combined margin of 749 runs, England had suffered the most complete of sporting defeats.

In being thrashed in the fourth by eight wickets, less than a day after being 116 runs ahead with all 10 second innings wickets in hand, they have reached the end.

When once-great teams fall, they fall far and fast, in ways that scarcely seemed possible in their lofty days of easy superiority.

The Ashes 2013-14

21-25 Nov: First Test, Brisbane: Australia won by 381 runs

5-9 Dec: 2nd Test, Adelaide: Australia won by 218 runs

13-17 Dec: 3rd Test, Perth: Australia won by 150 runs

26-30 Dec: 4th Test, Melbourne: Australia won by eight wickets

3-7 Jan 2014: 5th Test, Sydney

So it was on the bright MCG outfield on Sunday. It wasn't just the dropped catches, spilled in an incomprehensible manner, or the wanton mis-fields, or the tactics born not just of desperation but disorientation and delusion.

It was the body language - the lowered eyes, the slumped shoulders, the sense not of a single unit but of 11 individuals, lost and alone in the wide green spaces, all of who seemed to be saying, I want to escape, but I can't.

No other sport extends the torture like Test cricket. If a big-name tennis player had blown his Australian Open chances so comprehensively at the adjacent Rod Laver Arena he would have been gone in half a day. If a top-ranked golfer falls apart at a major, he is spared further humiliation by the quick mercy of the cut.

England's agony has gone on, day after day, like that same golfer being forced to play round after failing round, an Open every week, duffing drives and missing putts, swing in pieces, galleries guffawing.

For a Test team in a death-dive, only the scenery changes. The story remains the same.

Analysis

"If you had put together a composite of the two teams at the end of the English summer you would not have found many Australians in it but if you were to do the same now you would probably only include Stuart Broad and Kevin Pietersen from the England ranks.

"It is a remarkable turnaround over such a short space of time and leaves you feeling that England just need this series to end before further damage is done."

Read more from Aggers

It is a cruel, gratuitous process for those sucked in. You could see it on Sunday in the loneliness of Alastair Cook, stripped on this tour both of his old form and three of his senior players, impotent at first slip as Australia cantered to the 201 runs they needed for victory, so haunted by what was happening that he dropped a catch that would have stuck to a wall.

You could see it in the anger of the Englishmen watching, in the blame that gets cast at even the innocent when a team capitulates so totally, at the way talk moves beyond a mere criticism of sporting skill and into the denunciation of a man's character.

It matters little some may be without fault. England's team psychologist Mark Bawden, to offer one example, has been indispensable to several England players, a factor not only in their highs but in alleviating myriad unseen lows. But there will be those who demand his dismissal, just as others will the similarly excellent batting coach Graham Gooch, because people want explanations, and they want scapegoats.

For those on the pitch it can be more brutal still.

Players - experienced men, successful men - are pulled apart and opened up. Michael Carberry's technical flaws are no longer just his own or those of a few canny county bowlers; they have become public property, his humiliations discussed by people he will never meet.

It can be an unedifying sight. But it is happening, just as it has happened to other fine teams of the past, just as it will happen again to other sporting sides ambushed by advancing years and younger, hungrier opponents.

Catalogue of collapses

Brisbane: England lost six wickets for nine runs in their first innings and 4-9 in their second.

Adelaide: England lost 6-24 in their first innings of 172 all out.

Perth: Five wickets fall for 43 in first innings 251.

Melbourne: England lost their last six first innings wickets for 53 and their last five for only six second time round.

As the year closes, so does an era on this England team. Three years ago indomitable, unbeaten in 13 Tests just six weeks ago, they are now not just decaying but perished.

It has become the classic case-study. There is the frantic selection and rapid reappraisal: call in Jonny Bairstow, watch him fail with the bat and miss two chances with the gloves, immediately decide he is not up to the task.

There are the wild gambles in tactics: needing to bowl a side out, on a fourth-day pitch, and turning not to your specialist spinner Monty Panesar (167 Test wickets) but a part-timer, Joe Root, with 14 first-class wickets in his entire career.

There are the calls for heads to roll: questions about captain Cook's future, without any thought to who might come next; an attack on coach's Andy Flower's methods, even though they took the team to number one in the world, even though they beat India away and this same Australia side at home.

There is the style of dismissals - death not by a thousand cuts, but by a hundred slogs, by countless desperate edges; the crisis calls for fresh sacrificial victims, even though Gary Ballance and Scott Borthwick have never played at this level and could be scarred for good by being steamrollered in Sydney.

And there is the raising of the opposition raised to supernatural levels.

Shane Watson hits the winning run to give Australia a 4-0 lead in the Ashes

Shane Watson hits the winning runs to give Australia a 4-0 lead in the Ashes

You can understand it with Midas Mitch, the man whose golden arm has lit up this series, but this Australia side is not the vintage of 2006-7.

Nathan Lyon is no longer a groundsman, just as Chris Rogers is exactly the sort of short-sighted, colour-blind 36-year-old that England would love to have opening their innings. But in their failings Cook's men have turned them into superheroes.

As Shane Watson clouted the winning runs at the MCG on Sunday afternoon, England's resigned travelling support were bellowing their own version of Sloop John B. It ends with a lyrical tweak: "…in a glass cabinet, the urn stays at home."

Only the barmiest of armies could have resisted the urge to stick with the original. Is this the worst trip they've ever been on? Barring a miracle at the SCG, it would be hard to argue.

When England's rugby union team were similarly thrashed on their visit to Australia 15 years ago, the humiliation was so total that it became known as the Tour of Hell.

Choose your own epitaph this time around. Tour of Torment? The Disaster Down Under?

If they weren't so stricken by what has gone on, England's players might find a fitting way to say it themselves: this has been the winter of our dismemberment.