England cricket fans, this writer among them, are wandering around in a discombobulated trance asking that very question. Nobody has yet come up with a plausible answer. A few cricket fans Down Under might be able to provide one, but they too seem to be wandering around in a similar condition, though for a much different reason.
The facts are these. A little over two months ago, England’s team boarded a plane to Australia as firm favourites to retain the ‘Ashes’ trophy against a side they had just beaten, for the third series in a row, and by a decisive margin of three games to nil. This week, they will be boarding the flight home after suffering a five-game whitewash which matches the previous worst defeat in the long history of the Ashes rivalry, and surpasses even that in the manner of it.
Before England’s recent string of victories, Australians were given to chuckling over jokes about the incompetence of the Poms. One of the old chestnuts was that there were only three wrongs with English cricketers: they couldn’t bat, they couldn’t bowl and they couldn’t field. It’s a safe bet that the same joke is now doing the rounds in raucous taverns in downtown Sydney, where England’s final humiliation of the series was inflicted yesterday.
So what do we think happened?
The obvious answer, one that Englishmen and Australians alike can agree on, is that Australia played very well and England played very badly. That much is so obvious as to be scarcely worth saying. But it hardly explains the dramatic twist of fortune, the stark reversals in form, or the sheer improbability of a result on which bookmakers at no point seemed in danger of losing fortunes. If memory serves the odds were 100-1. We all wish we had put a few quid on.
As so often happens in this ancient contest, one man made most of the difference. This time it was an Australian fast bowler, Mitchell Johnson, who entered the contest with a reputation for mental fragility and a dodgy action – an ugly side-arm sling – that had combined to keep him out of the summer series in England altogether, and loomed as a threat to his entire career. Johnson’s predecessors in the role of one-man wrecking-ball unit include such cricket legends as Bradman, Larwood, Tyson, and Lindwall. More poignantly, one might add Cook, the captain of this disgraced England team, who last time around blasted the Aussie attack to all parts at each match venue, and this time batted throughout like a nerve-jangled teenager playing in his very first series.
Johnson the supposed flake is now a national hero, Cook the wonder-boy may now face the sack. As the Americans would say, “Go figure”.
Figuring is what we are all engaged in now.
English heads will roll, of course. Fans and newspaper columnists are already baying for blood. What they are not baying for are the obvious replacements, for the simple reason that there are no obvious replacements. And the players who failed most conspicuously in Australia are those who supposedly formed the backbone of the team. Two of them opted out voluntarily, in mid-series, one having succumbed to a stress-related illness, the other having announced his retirement. The others will have to be pushed out. But which ones?
If I had the nous or the intelligence to offer explanations, I would gladly offer them, free of charge. But I have not the slightest clue, not even a scintilla of a clue, about what went on in this winter of our discontent. No idea why a well-balanced and experienced team should suddenly disintegrate. Nor why mediocre opponents should suddenly discover a mojo that few suspected even lay dormant.
Nor, I suspect, do the cricket authorities who must now analyse the probable causes of the debacle and make the decisions that will correct them.
Age brings perspective, if not wisdom, and I have not been losing sleep over what my (American) wife calls “just a silly cricket game”. Some cricket-lovers may well have benefited from extra sleep, having stayed up late to watch the action on television, but switched off after a few glimpsed premonitions of England’s slaughter.
Meanwhile, let the Australians celebrate their triumph in summer sunshine while we Poms, braced against the winter storms, prepare to conduct an embarrassing inquest.
And let us also reflect, for the sake of sanity, that six months ago the positions were reversed.