Sport Cricket Boxing Day Test preview: Aussies aim for 4-0

Boxing Day Test preview: Aussies aim for 4-0

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England consider dropping Matt Prior
Swann’s retirement ‘selfish’: Rodney Hogg
Ageing Aussies are aiming up: Brad Haddin

An Ashes Boxing Day at the G … it’s the big one. It’s the one the tourists look forward to, the one they’ll tell their grandkids about and the biggest crowd they’ll ever play in front of. It sits perfectly positioned as the penultimate Test in a five-match series. Win at the MCG and the initiative is seized and the series is within your grasp.

Not so this time, eh?

England have been so abject that, sadly, the result of the highlight of the Southern cricketing calendar is academic. 95,000 will flood into the ‘G on Thursday morning to watch one team chase a whitewash and the other fight to regain some semblance of pride.

Every man, woman and child in Australia knows how brilliant its team has been, and it deservedly leads three-zip heading into the Melbourne Test. The abiding memories of this series will be of a reborn Mitchell Johnson, villainously tattooed and moustachioed, tearing in and flinging thunderbolts at the heads and the toes of cowering English batsmen.

Picking apart exactly why England have been dismantled with such ease by an unfancied Australia side will one day be the subject of books, not just mere articles.

We’ll also recall David Warner’s spectacular second innings willow-wielding, and the tactical and technical brilliance of Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin. Australia has been a united team, they’ve fielded brilliantly, hunted in packs with the ball and shared seven centuries in three tests. It’s been a special performance and all the better considering the rudderless shell of a team that donned the Baggy Green in the first half of 2013.

The series, of course, will also be remembered for England’s wretched performances. With the Ashes gone by Christmas and two top tourists (Jonathan Trott and Graeme Swann) now gone, surely 2013/14 has overtaken 2006/07 as England’s worst-ever tour. Sporting cliches tell us we can take positives in defeat, but that sure as hell isn’t easy for England fans right now.

It’s been a tour of unexpected low ebbs after years of riding high. Brisbane was the heaviest defeat, but with four games to go, there was time to recover. An England fan would be forgiven for thinking that the nadir had been reached when they were skittled for 172 on Day 3 in Adelaide, on a track that Australia had compiled 570 on just minutes earlier, effectively plunging them to a guaranteed two-nil deficit. Day 3 in Perth was pretty bad too, but the morning of Day 4 trumped it as Messrs Watson and Bailey made merry against two titans of the English game, Jimmy Anderson and Graeme Swann.

Surely, things are worse now, though? Four days before Boxing Day, Swann — the heartbeat of the side, not to mention joker-in-chief, legendary spinner and one of the safest pairs of hands in the game — has bid a brief but glittering England career adieu.

What remains is a shadow of the side that won three Ashes series on the bounce and sat atop the world rankings as recently as August 2012. England’s finest side, the one that celebrated reaching its peak at Sydney in January 2011 by showcasing its own dance, “the Sprinkler”, before reaching new heights with a home whitewash against India that summer, has now been shorn of the talents of Andrew Strauss, Paul Collingwood, Trott and Swann, while former England captain and all-round speaker of sense, Michael Atherton, says we can expect more retirements in the none-too-distant future.

Picking apart exactly why England have been dismantled with such ease by an unfancied Australia side will one day be the subject of books, not just mere articles.

In brief, though, there are a number of factors. England’s players look exhausted, burnt out and as some have already done, ready to call it quits as a result of gruelling schedules, time away from young families and a system of management that while very successful, allows little breathing space. England’s style has caught up with them — it is surely no coincidence that those who’ve looked most up for the fight this series have been those who’ve been involved for the shortest time: Joe Root, Ben Stoke and Michael Carberry. Expectation of an unprecedented fourth consecutive Ashes win appears to have told and perhaps preparation was not right.

There are two certainties, however. Firstly, form slumps in sport are inevitable and few teams in the history of the game could continue to win with five players of the quality of Cook, Pietersen, Prior, Swann and Anderson so out of form, not to mention the fact the team has also had to deal with the departure of Trott. Of England’s high achievers, only Broad, an injury doubt for Melbourne, and Bell have shown flashes of their best, and even they remain inconsistent. Secondly, there is little doubt that the tourists have been caught off-guard by the brilliance and hunger of their opponents.

Without doubt, though, this is England’s lowest ebb and may yet represent a turning point. Only 2006-07 is worthy of comparison since the turn of the century and England’s dark decade, the 1990s. The feeling now, however, will be harder to stomach for England fans — they travelled to Australia in droves expecting their team to win. In 2006/07 they arrived clutching to hope rather than the expectation fueled by England’s brilliant performance in 2010/11.

Heading into the Melbourne test, wholesale changes are unlikely. Swann’s departure and Broad’s toe have lessened the chance of Prior’s absence, due to the need for his leadership, while Geoffrey Boycott’s calls for Pietersen’s sackings will rightly fall on deaf ears. Pietersen’s form is poor and he is under pressure but he’s a proven matchwinner and England need to win matches. Boyd Rankin is the favourite to replace Broad if he fails to pull through and Monty Panesar will replace Swann, despite England adding two spinners, Scott Borthwick and James Tredwell, to the touring party.

Swann’s shock Sunday departure has divided a disillusioned England fan-base. Some label him a quitter, others applaud his sense of timing. The latter troupe’s argument, like Swann’s himself, is that having lost his hunger and the ability to bowl at length due to a chronically dicky right elbow, the time was right, mid-series or not, to move on and let someone else take over. He won’t be there in 2015 so he needn’t do a lap of honour now.

With just 14 Tests between Ashes series and two World Cups just round the corner, Swann is correct. England need to plan ahead immediately and new blood is perhaps the best way to arrest the slide. It is likely that Andy Flower, Graham Gooch and David Saker will step aside for Ashley Giles, Graham Thorpe and Graeme Welch in January, anyway. This is the end of an era, it might as well begin now. Swann’s departure is a line in the sand for England.

Monday should have been a quiet day of preparation but this tour doesn’t do quiet. Some careless comments from Swann (“Some people playing the game at the minute have no idea how far up their own backsides they are and it will bite them on the arse one day and when it does I hope they look back and are embarrassed about how they carry on. No names.”) have been moulded into a sly dig at team-mates (namely Kevin Pietersen) by the English and Australian press alike when they were likely nothing more than a reference to the bad blood between these two sides. Either way, the reaction in England has been furious and plunged England to a new nadir.

Pride is all that’s on offer for the tourists on the world’s grandest stage, the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Two months ago, the idea that Boxing Day would represent the dawning of a new England team was laughable but the XI selected, a mixture of youth and experience but raw, beaten and sorry, must front up and seize their opportunity. There are careers on the line, after all.

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