England melt in Ashes obliteration

Before the 2013/14 Ashes series started, much of the build-up surrounded the scoreline by which England would win the series.

Sir Ian Botham was in typically boisterous mood, predicting a 5-0 whitewash for the visitors against an Australian side who, without attracting attention, deserved more respect than they had been afforded.

The warning signs were there during the summer. England’s 3-0 victory managed to sufficiently paper over the cracks of some flaky performances – and the foolhardy had not even noticed there were cracks in the first place.

Perhaps the most common theme of England’s summer Ashes campaign was that of the bowlers rescuing their side after some flatulent displays from the batsmen placed the team in precarious positions on more than one occasion.

Too many times England were reduced to 30-3 as captain Alastair Cook’s weakness outside off stump was badly exposed and Joe Root’s inexperience gravely exploited.

Australian seamer Ryan Harris was made to look world-class by some imprudent strokeplay, while Peter Siddle dismissed Kevin Pietersen more times than English fans care to remember.

On the face of it, Botham’s prediction was mischievous and unduly confident but few could have foreseen a dismantling of such gigantic proportions that would see his 5-0 prophecy inverted in Australia’s favour.

England started the series well and probably shaded the first day, reducing Australia to 132-6. Where the tide began to turn however, was when England were skittled for 136 to concede a first-innings deficit of 159 runs.

The two Australian innings had finished and started on the same day, such was the level of England’s collapse.

It was a collapse masterminded by the resurgent Mitchell Johnson, who terrorised England’s batsmen with vicious pace, bounce and accuracy.

The latter quality had always been Johnson’s nemesis. Too often he had the tendency to drift wide – at times embarrassingly so – and he was consequently taunted by the Barmy Army.

However, in this series he made them watch with great pain as he continued a rejuvenation which had begun in April in India. Playing for Mumbai Indians in the Indian Premier League, he delivered a string of highly impressive bowling performances.

He had finally been able to rid himself of the inconsistency which had plagued his game and was showing great control of line and length in partnership with his more renowned pace and bounce.

Johnson was suddenly the cricketer England feared he would one day become, but when the two sides met in Brisbane for the opening Test the visitors were hopelessly underprepared – and they never recovered.

The left-armer succeeded in mangling numerous English innings throughout the series, stripping batsmen such as Jonathan Trott – who later flew home due to mental health problems – and Matt Prior of their confidence and rampaging through the tailend with a cruel ease.

Johnson took 37 wickets during the series – two more than Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad combined – complete with three five-wicket hauls and having snared 15 more wickets than Ryan Harris, who with 22 also had a superb series.

While it’s easy to focus on the brutality of Johnson’s form, England’s dire batting should also be spotlighted.

The previous Ashes tour was an incredible one for England as they routinely pulverised the Australian attack. They even broke records, memorably when they scored 517-1 in the second innings of the first Test in 2010.

Cook (235*) and Trott (135*) were the men chiefly responsible, while Andrew Strauss weighed in with a century himself.

How that form changed in just three years. In the 2010/11 series, England were scoring centuries almost at will. In the 2013/14 series, they mustered just one – Ben Stokes’ 120 at Perth.

Stokes, competing in his debut Test series, was by far the brightest light of England’s gloomy tour. He scored 279 runs at an average of 34.87, which was just 15 runs less than the reckless Kevin Pietersen despite playing four of the five Tests.

Australia were better than England in every department, but especially so at the crease.

The top six series runscorers were all Australian, while David Warner’s tally of 523 runs was only four runs short of the combined tally of his counterparts Alastair Cook and Michael Carberry.

Australia also notched ten centuries against England’s one, which is the most telling statistic of all.

Much credit should go to Australia coach Darren Lehmann, who has transformed the fortunes of a side who had lost seven of their last nine Tests before Brisbane.

He has crafted a new generation of cut-throat cricket, instilled a winning mentality into his side and constructed a batting line-up capable of scoring fifties right down to numbers nine and ten.

That depth of batting was perfectly illustrated by Brad Haddin and Johnson. Haddin, in particular, was a constant hindrance. He scored 493 runs at an average of 61.62 and counter-attacked at crucial times.

Just when England were looking to bowl Australia out for around 200, up popped Haddin with a typically aggressive half-century to further demoralise the English attack.

Lehmann will also be pleased that from Haddin down to Nathan Lyon at 11, Australia’s tailenders plundered 874 runs between them.

When matched against England’s top three runscorers Kevin Pietersen (294); Michael Carberry (281) and Ben Stokes (279), Australia’s tailenders outscored them by 20 runs – a truly harrowing statistic for England coach Andy Flower to ponder.

Flower will be pondering plenty after this series, for as worrying as England’s reliance on their bowlers is their lack of emerging talent.

So far only Root and Stokes have made plausible claims to a regular starting spot, but the likes of Carberry and Jonny Bairstow have not flattered themselves in a dismal situation wherein a run of confident displays could have cemented their Test berth.

The fact that Graeme Swann, England’s second-most prolific Test spinner after Derek Underwood, retired after three Tests of this tour also turns attention towards England’s spin talents.

Scott Borthwick did himself no harm by taking 3-33 in the Sydney Test, but Monty Panesar has had a damaging tour having taken just three wickets in the four innings he has bowled.

Flower and Cook have a massive rebuilding process to go through and must analyse the gory details of the series, extracting any positives they can.  England’s golden era is over, but after this Ashes obliteration Australia’s is only just beginning.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89
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A Great British Sporting Weekend

Everything went perfectly – almost.

This was a Great British sporting weekend to rival any other in history.

It began on the other side of the planet as the British and Irish Lions took on Australia in Sydney. They knew that with the series locked at 1-1, a win would hand them their first series triumph in 16 years, and their first in Australia since 1989.

With ten Welsh players in the starting XV, the Lions were dubbed the “Llions” in some areas of the media, while coach Warren Gatland had come under heavy criticism for his decision to drop Brian O’Driscoll from not only the starting line-up, but the match-day squad too.

Within two minutes of the whistle the critics had been hushed as a rampant Lions scrum punished a knock-on from Will Genia at the kick-off with an Alex Corbisiero try.

The Lions were making mincemeat of a dismal Australian scrum, forcing the Wallabies to concede penalty after penalty in their own half to gift the tourists a 19-3 lead – Leigh Halfpenny clinically dispatching five kicks at goal.

But a late first-half twist saw the Aussies haul themselves back into the game with a converted James O’Connor score. Suddenly, the Lions were wobbling rather than bouncing into the break.

More nervous energy was to be expended amongst the 30,000 Lions fans inside the ANZ Stadium when Christian Leali’ifano kicked two penalties to make it 19-16.

The Lions’ response was tremendous with Jonny Sexton, George North and Jonathan Davies all cutting through the Australian defence to score tries in a mesmeric ten-minute spell.

At 41-16, the Lions had crushed the Australian’s spirit and the series was theirs.

A couple of hours after that momentous win, British attention switched to the Eifel mountains in Germany, where Lewis Hamilton wrapped up pole position for the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.

He did so with a stunning lap, beating home darling Sebastian Vettel by 0.103 seconds on the final lap of qualifying.

British sport fans could have been forgiven for thinking that the day was not going to get better than this but 778 miles away from Hamilton in the Pyrenean mountains, Chris Froome had other ideas.

Froome, favourite for the Tour de France, had targeted the eighth stage in his quest to pull on the famous yellow jersey worn by the leader of the race.

After showing composure to gradually reel in a dangerous attack from Nairo Quintana, Froome’s Team Sky ripped up the road en route to the summit finish atop Ax 3 Domaines.

Froome then attacked with 6km remaining – to devastating effect.

So fierce was his acceleration on a climb peaking at a gradient of around 10%, he had shattered the race – leaving his rivals gasping for air.

He continued to power to the finish, cresting the summit with 1km to go and speeding over the false flat to claim his second career Tour de France stage win.

Froome claimed not only the yellow jersey and a stage win, but several minutes on his rivals. Alejandro Valverde was the least damaged of them all, but even he came home over a minute behind.

Alberto Contador and Quintana finished another 30 seconds later, while the explosive talent of Joaquim Rodriguez had been tamed, with the little Spaniard finishing over two minutes down on Froome.

All this had happened on Saturday, but the best was reserved for Sunday as Andy Murray faced world number one Novak Djokovic in the men’s singles final at Wimbledon.

Murray was aiming to win his second career Grand Slam, and in the process end a 77-year wait for the first British male winner at Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936.

In 40 degree heat, it was a battle of stamina as much as physicality.

Outrageously long rallies – some stretching to 30 shots – were becoming normal and a first set which took just over one hour was eventually won by the Scot 6-4.

In typical fashion, Djokovic mounted a quick recovery. Breaking Murray in the fourth game of the second set, he raced into a 4-1 lead.

Murray was stumbling at this point but swiftly picked up his game and broke the Serbian back, winning three games in a row to level at 4-4.

With the duo holding their next service games it was Djokovic who blinked first as Murray broke him for a 6-5 lead with his second break point. Nerveless, he served out the set to love for a 2-0 lead.

Djokovic was clearly out of sorts, perhaps hindered by his exhausting semi-final win over Juan Martin Del Potro, and he dropped his serve at the start of the third as Britain dared to believe this was Murray’s year.

He seemingly did too, as a sudden crash in his level of performance combined with Djokovic’s best tennis of the match resulted in two breaks of serve for the Serbian.

His 4-2 lead would diminish immediately though, as Murray stirringly chased down a flurry of drop shots to break Djokovic twice more and earn himself a 5-4 lead and a chance to serve for the championship.

The crowd, whose shrieks of support reverberated around Centre Court, were ecstacized as Murray fought crippling nerves to surge into a 40-0 lead.

Yet three championship points disappeared as quickly as they materialised, with Djokovic thriving on the pressure steeped on Murray’s every shot to win five straight points and a break-back opportunity.

Somehow summoning the strength to save the game, Murray twice more offered break points to Djokovic, and saved each of them with courageous defensive work.

On winning his fourth championship point Murray would not be denied and when Djokovic dumped a forehand into the net, a nerve-shredded Wimbledon exploded with relief as much as celebration.

The only disappointment to arise from this now fabled weekend was Hamilton’s performance in Germany. Swamped by both Red Bulls off the start, the Mercedes driver never recovered and could only finish fifth behind Vettel – who took the first home win of his young career.

Britain’s competitors were not finished yet – Graeme McDowell carded a superb 67 to win by four shots in the French Open. But by that time it was conceivable that golf, along with many other sports, had paled into relative insignificance as the nation basked in the rays of Murray’s success.

And so this Great British Sporting Weekend finished with a nation united and sun-drunk. We hadn’t felt this good since the Olympian summer of 2012.

Now, where did Andrew Strauss leave that little urn?