New Times,
New Thinking.

9 January 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:46am

Just four months ago, England were the victors. How did it all crumble into ashes?

Dynasties, after all, can wind up frighten­ingly quickly, with or without hubris at the top.

By Ed Smith

“All reviews are bad for you,” argued Ted Hughes, “especially the good ones.” So it has proved for the England cricket team, victorious against Australia four months ago, now utterly vanquished 5-0 by the same opponents.

How did it happen? Good ideas, reinforced by credulous admirers, were taken to counterproductive extremes. Congratulated for their industrious work ethic, the team became their own slave masters. Praised for leaving no stone unturned, they found ever more stones to upturn, each less relevant than the last. Lauded for their professionalism, they snuffed out the last glimpses of play (from a game, let’s remember). Admired for their dedication, they fantasised it was the answer to every problem.

The resulting atmosphere: anxious, dutiful, earnest, fearful and highly professional. Too little in evidence: fun, naturalness, mischief, adventure, lightness, wit and maverick independence. As always, collective mood is partly a consequence of losing rather than a cause of it. In this instance, however, team dynamics influenced performance as well as vice versa.

At the heart of the story are three good men – the coach, Andy Flower; the captain, Alastair Cook; and the batting coach, Graham Gooch. Taken individually, they all have great qualities. Flower is direct, analytical and forthright; Cook has integrity, calmness and resilience; Gooch is respected, understated and down-to-earth. But somehow this triumvirate, reunited after a long-standing alliance at their county team, Essex, has proved less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps they reinforced each other too much. As they searched for players with their own single-minded approach to success, the template for “their” kind of player hardened and shrank.

A classic paradox emerged: instead of developing 16 cricketers into ultra-efficient players in the Cook-Gooch-Flower mould, they watched a team lose its collective clout. Instinctive players cannot reinvent themselves overnight as gutsy battlers. They just become bad versions of their old selves – scoring unnaturally slowly then getting out, disorientated by a lack of familiarity with their own performance. That is pretty much what happened for five Test matches. Yet after each defeat the mantra was “We’ll work harder”. There seemed no one around to suggest trying something different.

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Frequently throughout this tour of Australia, two quotes have returned to my mind. The first is the dictum of Cook’s successful predecessor as England captain, Andrew Strauss. “I wouldn’t want to captain a team full of people like me,” Strauss used to say. He was not pretending to be a difficult character – quite the opposite. I have, in fact, captained Strauss, and he was strik­ingly considered and courteous. That was his point. Where a few players are naturally establishment figures (such as Strauss), others must remain true to their feisty, even egotistical nature. You can have too many of the “right” kind of player.

The second comment is an insight by Luiz Felipe Scolari, the football manager who coached Brazil to World Cup victory in 2002: “My priority is to ensure that players feel more amateur than professional.”

Combining these two ideas leads to the central challenge that faces all managers, in sport and beyond. Some players need to be managed towards greater discipline, focus and restraint. Others require the opposite encouragement, to be set free from stifling executive control. Hence two questions – where each player stands on that spectrum, and how to move them in the appropriate direction – add up to a definitive set of judgements for all captains and managers.

Yet none of this will quite suffice as a complete explanation of perhaps the most disappointing England tour ever (in shortfall between expectation and performance).

The Australian fast bowler Mitchell John­son, often more miss than hit, bowled with lethal pace and venom. Had England’s batsmen been on top form, they might have weathered the storm and Johnson’s fragile confidence would have waned. But England looked jaded from the start. And extreme speed can turn a jaded batsman into a burned-out player within the space of a few well-directed 95mph bouncers. Australian fast bowling and English jadedness reinforced each other, creating a whirlpool effect that dragged England underwater.

James Anderson, who has taken more wickets than anyone who has worn an England shirt, has been ridiculed for writing in his autobiography that this was perhaps the greatest England team ever and they wanted to create a dynasty. This has been interpreted as fatal hubris.

Dynasties, after all, can wind up frighten­ingly quickly, with or without hubris at the top. Niall Ferguson’s essay “Complexity and Collapse” exposed the dangers in searching for long-term explanations (a natural historian’s impulse) within every dynastic collapse. A complex human system, Ferguson argued, resembles a termite hill more than an Egyptian pyramid: “They operate somewhere between order and disorder. Such systems can appear to operate quite stably for some time; they seem to be in equilibrium but are, in fact, constantly adapting. But there comes a moment when complex systems ‘go critical’. A very small trigger can set off a phase transition from a benign equilibrium to a crisis – a single grain of sand causes a whole pile to collapse.”

In comparison with the apparently reassuring ultra-professionalism of English cricket – the groomed lines of accountability, glossy mission statements and 82-page booklets about player nutrition – a few thunderbolts hurled by an Aussie fast bowler doesn’t sound like much. But the termite hill has crumbled all right, disintegrating into ashes.

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