Saturday 25 November 2006

England shoot a gift horse in the head

First Test, Brisbane
Day 3 Comment
These are dark days for England. Yesterday they made good bowling look great, and a dodgy pitch look a minefield. Predictably, they were skittled out for 157.

But what followed was less predictable, though far more damaging. Ricky Ponting as if he was somehow bemused by the lack of contest, threw England a lifeline. Not for the match, which was over, but for the series.

Before that what we desperately needed was an opportunity to regain ground in the mental war. We needed something positive to take into the rest of the series. Just as how despite being thrashed at Lords in 2005, England showed they could take learning into the rest of the series.

And Ponting threw down that gauntlet.

He gifted England an opportunity to run in and redeem their shoddy display of the first day. To prove to everyone that it is England who has the more potent fast bowling unit. Prove that day one was just nerves. Prove that they can come back strongly in this series, just as they did in the last.

It was an extraordinary piece of generosity. It looked like Buchanan and Ponting had conjured up one trick too many for this game – one that could come back to haunt them. They offered England a much-needed turning point in the series. Flintoff should have roused his men, urging them to fire, aim to take down five wickets for 100 and leave Ponting declaring again in the match, but this time limply and under a barrage of questions. It is not easy to lift yourself after such an abysmal batting display but Flintoff and England were given that chance.

Instead we were subjected to the worst display by an England side for years. Anderson was tossed the new ball as an uninterested and despondent England shrugged around the field with little purpose, almost waiting for Ponting to put them out of their misery. There was little noise from England, no fight; this was a side that showed remarkable disbelief in their ability to compete. Flintoff has to take some responsibility for this. His leadership credentials are based on his ability to inspire and instil belief in his players. He failed to do that, and failed to take charge with the new ball. Given the opportunity to begin the fight back now, instead of at Adelaide, England seemed curiously limp of any desire. For followers of England it was the most desperately disappointing passage of play, matching anything from the dark ages of the 1990’s.

It cannot be stressed enough that test matches, and Ashes cricket in particular, is a psychological game. It’s very rare in this game that you’re thrown a lifeline from the brink of defeat. If England can’t regain the desire to compete in this series, there’s a flight leaving from Brisbane tonight.

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