Only his 3rd series defeat in 15, the knee jerk reactionary criticism of England Coach is highly unwarranted.
"Greatest rivalry in Cricket". "Nothing better than the Ashes". "Ashes is the ultimate Test for a cricketer". As Sky's marketing campaign got underway in the summer in preparations for back to back Ashes, it was easy to get swept away in all the excitement. Such statements were regurgitated with glee by Australian and England fans alike, the belligerent self-affirming nature of them rarely questioned. It was as if the other playing nations were mere supporting acts to this main show and mattered far less. "Forget your World Cups, this is what it's all about" Declared Graemme Swann confidently in an interview before the current series. Ofcourse there was a time when hegemony belonged to England and Australia in the early 1900s but those days are long gone, along with any significance attached to such claims.
Never was this so clearly demonstrated as on the 7th of February 2009, when England were bowled out for 51 against the West Indies. Fast forward to 2013 India thrashed Australia 3-0 and England avoided an away series defeat to New Zealand by the skin of their teeth. All that without mentioning the current dominant force in Test cricket, South Africa and the ever threatening nature of Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Suggesting the Ashes is the "ultimate test for a cricketer" therefore remain observations reserved for the obtuse PR/Marketing departments hell-bent on squeezing every penny of Ad revenues out of their respective sponsors.
Amidst the current tsunami of depression that's sweeping England's cricket fandom, it's important to remember that 2009 West Indies tour. It was arguably one of the lowest points in their history, recording the third ever lowest test total. In fact let's forget about the 45 all out vs Australia from 1887 for a minute.(when, let's face it cricket pitches were worse off than the village wickets of today) Let's even overlook for argument's sake the 46 all out against the Windies in 1994, when Walsh and Ambrose (alongside Waqar & Wasim, arguably the best bowling attack ever) decimated England's batting order on their own patch. That 2009 collapse then becomes the worst return by an England team ever. After all, it was a side that contained Cook, Strauss, KP, Ian Bell, Collingwood, Flintoff and Prior, hardly a pushover batting order. The media rhetoric used for England's recent loss in Ashes therefore must feel like a Swedish massage compared to the one they received for that performance four years ago. It was the darkest of times, a turbulent time, a time they required someone remarkably calm and capable. That someone proved to be Andy Flower and we must never forget that. The ebb and flow nature of sport is well known, but one can't underestimate the remarkable turnaround Flower achieved as Coach in just six months. Beating Australia by 197 runs to win the ashes at the Oval vehemently proved that Flower was the perfect man for steering the ship safely through the stormy waters.
It didn't end there of course. Despite the likes of Flintoff and Harmison retiring Flower took England to the dizzy heights of the Test no.1 spot. In a 2 year period they went undefeated in 6 series, winning 5 and drawing one away to South Africa. During his recent tenure he has also successfully overseen the retirement of Collingwood and immensely influential captain Andrew Strauss. England's triumph in India only a year ago was their first series victory there in 27 years. Flower's team followed that up with a further two series victories this year including a home Ashes triumph.
So what went wrong in this Ashes series? Whatever the reason, pointing the finger directly at Flower and suggesting it was entirely his fault borders on the ridiculous. In his fifteen Test series in charge Flower has won nine (including three Ashes series) drawn three and lost just three. Until recently when Ashley Giles took charge of the ODI and T20 squads Flower was in charge of all three formats. The demands of the job on his personal life in a packed International calendar must’ve been heavy. However his unwavering dedication and dogged commitment have seen England enter a period of remarkable success. Something which warrants immense credit and not just a vote of confidence but a plea to stay on as England coach. He is the only man capable of reversing the side's fortunes following a crushing Ashes defeat. Luckily for England fans he has firmly quashed rumours of resignation, declaring his intent to stay in his latest press conference. The following are some of the immediate issues he may have to deal with after this series.
Jonathan Trott mystery
A posture of inconsistency necessarily avoids definition is a scholarly quote that comes to mind when trying to decipher this particular puzzle. The ECB have evaded defining Trott's condition as depression choosing the words "stress related" instead. Assuming such posture is convenient because if Trott was/is suffering from depression it raises serious questions. What's the point of employing performance managers and sports psychologists if they can't help avert boiling points in the middle of Test series? Especially given the ECB admitted afterwards they had known for a few years about the illness. It solidifies a strong case for mismanagement of a player's well being. Flower's first challenge will be to make sure this is never repeated. If a physical injury warrants complete rest for a given period of time, an illness of this kind must also be taken seriously in the future.
Retirement is an extremely sensitive topic for International cricketers and probably one of the most important decisions of their career. Whilst the final say remains with the individual it'd be a tad foolish to assume that involving the coach and captain in the decision making process is of no value. Flower has officially revealed he wanted Swann to see out the tour, it appears Swann chose to ignore that advice. Furthermore, Swann in his press conference gave a plethora of personal reasons all of which to varying degrees seemingly neglected the responsibility owed to his team, the needs of which supersede the "personal" needs or wants of the individual. Flower may want to request the ECB to implement clauses in player contracts with fines for players who default on their 100% commitment to seeing out a given tour barring injury or illness.
Schedule and squad rotation
Moving forward Flower will also look to get much tougher when it comes to resting players. Such decisions are rarely easy, mostly inducing unrest amongst players who are fit and wanting to play as much as possible, but it's not their decision. There's no shortage of extremely talented young cricketers England fans will pay to go and see. The likes of the New Zealand series this year could form a perfect foil for such an exercise. The nature of the modern game schedule demands a rotation policy, sustained succes demands it. Rest can be healthy for a player, it did wonders for a certain Mitchell Johnson.
Rana Malook is a sports writer for HITC. Tweet him @rararana or join in the conversation @hitccricket
image: © andy-roo