After their most embarrassing capitulation yet in what has been a humiliating series, England are on the brink of a 5-0 Ashes whitewash. Somehow, in just 24 hours, they traded a position of absolute strength – a lead of 116 runs and 10 wickets in hand – for a fourth consecutive defeat, this time by eight wickets.
Bad Ashes tours break teams, just ask England’s class of 2006/07. Melbourne was the moment that 2013/14 overtook the “Ashes Horribilis” in England’s tour stinker stakes and now, just as then, it is time for change.
Of course, in the upper echelons of the English game, changes were going to be made already. Hugh Morris, the highly successful Managing Director of “Team England” will be replaced on Wednesday, the start of the New Year (England will hope it’s a new dawn, too), by former Test wicketkeeper Paul Downton. On the same day, James Whittaker takes over from Geoff Miller as national selector.
There have been more widely publicised changes on the field, too. Jonathan Trott left after the Brisbane Test with a stress related illness and is unlikely to be seen in an England shirt in the near future. Graeme Swann divided the cricket world with the timing of his retirement, just four days before the Melbourne Test, while Matt Prior, another bastion of this England team’s success in recent years, was dropped for that match after 60 consecutive Test. They may not be the last casualties.
Amongst the upheaval the time is right for a change in the department between the boardroom and the pitch: the coaching staff. Now, after nearly five magnificent years as head coach, it is time for Andy Flower to step aside and for England to usher in a new generation.
Flower is a proud man but will know that England’s latest collapse makes his position untenable and will surely resign in the aftermath of the Sydney Test match – win, lose, or draw. This is a situation not just borne out of England’s four defeats but the manner and weight (381, 218 and 150 runs and eight wickets) of those losses.
There were whispers as early as August that this could be Flower’s final series as coach. So successful had his reign been that there were suggestions that he’d trade his tracksuit for a blazer and head upstairs to replace Morris. There were others who said his success allowed him a period of time with his young family before heading back into the game, in any capacity, when he pleased. He’s Zimbabwe’s greatest player and arguably England’s finest coach – he wouldn’t (and won’t) struggle to find a job upon his return to cricket.
When these suggestions were first made, though, the landscape was rather different. England fans were basking in the glory of a third consecutive Ashes series win, and the idea of Flower departing was unthinkable.
Even after this Ashes debacle, he’s done one hell of a job. When he took over the team were in disarray. Peter Moores and Kevin Pietersen’s fledgling captain-coach relationship had imploded spectacularly and both had been fired. The team’s travails were on display in his first game in charge – as they were bowled out for 51 by a very average West Indies attack.
In two years Flower, in partnership with Andrew Strauss, had England top of the Test match tree and with a first international trophy in the cabinet too, thanks to success at the World T20 in 2010. His style was thorough, disciplined and big on unity. England’s fitness, nutrition and fielding were the best in world cricket and they laid the best plans. They won in Australia for the first time in 24 years and India for the first time in 27.
The time is right, though, and all good things must come to an end. England have been beaten in every department by Australia – with the bat, the ball and in the field, in their fitness, their planning and the captaincy and in unity, fight and hunger. England have been outplayed but they also look worn out. Australia have looked like they’ve enjoyed their cricket – England have looked like they’d rather be just about anywhere else. They need a makeover and they need freshening up.
The hallmarks of Flower’s regime are now just what England don’t need. Two months ago, the leaked 82-page dossier that revealed England’s extravagant menu requests looked like thorough, if a little over-the-top groundwork that was all part of the plan. Now, 4-0 down and utterly humiliated, it looks pretentious, precious, and frankly preposterous.
England’s cricketers don’t look like they are enjoying the game any longer – Trott’s troubles caught up with him, while the form-dips of burnt out senior players are alarming. That energy, so evident in the way the younger tourists such as Ben Stokes and Joe Root carry themselves on the field, needs to return to the team. Root and Stokes are yet to be worn down by the pressures of England’s chain of command and hectic schedule.
Flower’s support staff will no doubt go with him. Graham Gooch’s position is undoubtedly unsustainable after two more sorry collapses in Melbourne. England haven’t topped 400 in more than 20 innings and the days of the “Daddy Hundred” are long gone. The bowlers have been better but David Saker is hardly standing on terra firma. His work with Steven Finn’s run-up is baffling and his inability to find a use for any of the three giant pacemen is little short of a disaster.
The replacements have been groomed for some time. Ashley Giles is likely to replace Flower, while a Graham and a Graeme – Thorpe and Welch – are the favourites to coach the batting and bowling respectively. That said, Thorpe’s distaste for the touring life as a player may mean he continues to develop England’s youngsters as Lions coach. Former favourites Gus Fraser, Director of Cricket at Middlesex and Paul Collingwood, still captaining Durham but coaching Scotland too, are being mentioned in dispatches.
It’s not just Flower and his team who have got it wrong, of course. The selectors picked the wrong squad – tall bowlers and inadequate cover in the keeping and spinning department spring immediately to mind, while the captaincy has been stodgy and the on-field performances nothing short of dire. England’s next Test match isn’t until Sri Lanka visit Lord’s in June, so concerns about the make-up of the squad can wait. In the meantime Flower should, and most likely will, become the latest to go.
Will Macpherson writes for Back Page Lead.