It used to be said that a player never recovers from the disappointment of a poor Ashes tour.
There is plentiful evidence in this England side to suggest otherwise: Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, James Anderson and Kevin Pietersen were all part of the grim 2006-07 Ashes campaign yet have gone on to enjoy distinguished careers.
But when a man as reserved as Cook starts to talk about senior figures in the England side “playing for their futures” then you know something has gone seriously amiss.
England, for the first time since 2009, do not hold the Ashes and several of the senior players on which they built their hopes have failed to deliver.
Ashes defeats – particularly overwhelming Ashes defeats – tend to mark watershed moments in careers. There will be calls for resignations, there will be calls for sackings and calls for players to be dropped. It is likely some of those calls will be answered. There may even be a retirement, or at least a partial retirement, in the offing.
It is surely relevant that most of those who have endured disappointing series are those who have been involved in the England set-up for some time. As such, they have played a huge amount of cricket, they have spent around 250 days a year in hotels and they have been in the same high-intensity environment. Somewhere along the line, it appears they have become jaded.
The case of Jonathan Trott – forced home with mental exhaustion – might be extreme, but there are several other players on this tour who might be not so far from a similar fate.
Equally, it may be no coincidence that, of those to have enjoyed better series, three are relatively new to the set-up. Michael Carberry, Joe Root and Ben Stokes are all relatively fresh to international cricket, are yet to be wearied by the treadmill or worn down by the intensity of the England set-up. All three showed the mental strength to fight just a little harder than their more experienced colleagues.
Here we look at the performance of five senior players and weigh-up their chances of being involved when the Ashes is next contested, in England in 2015.
Alastair Cook: Age 28 Record in the series: 154 runs at 25.66 Chances of being involved in 2015: High
By Cook’s high standards, he has endured a poor six months. He has not made a century in any of the eight Tests against Australia and, with ponderous feet and a backlift that appears to bring his bat down at an angle, he has looked an increasingly hesitant, awkward figure at the crease. A propensity to plant his back foot may be the long-term issue: he is reaching and pushing for the ball outside the off stump and over balancing towards the off side when playing off his legs. He has also, simplistic though it may sound, been the unfortunate victim of a couple of very fine deliveries. The best batsmen find ways to deal with such issues, but Cook might consider himself somewhat unfortunate. Weariness may be a factor. No batsman in international cricket has faced as many deliveries as Cook since the 2010-11 Ashes series – he has actually faced more than 1,000 more than anyone else – and he is also carrying the burden of captaincy. When England fought back to win in India, the responsibility appeared to benefit Cook’s game but perhaps the attritional nature of the role has worn him down.
James Anderson: Age 31 Record in the series: 7 wickets at 52.48 apiece Chances of being involved in 2015: Medium
Sometimes it is a mistake to judge simply by returns. Anderson has, for much of this series, bowled far better than his figures suggest. While comparisons with the end of Matthew Hoggard’s Test career have been made – Hoggard was dropped having lost just a little of his pace – Anderson has been bowling briskly – he passed 90mph in Perth – and has rarely delivered loose balls. But his failure to find much lateral movement has rendered him worryingly impotent on pitches on which Australia’s trio of seamers have proved more adept. Anderson has also suffered through the failure of his batting colleagues: provided with little time to rest between innings, he has invariably been forced into the field in the second innings with Australia’s batsmen benefiting from a dominant match position. It would be simplistic to dismiss Anderson as dangerous only in English conditions, too: only a year ago MS Dhoni rated him the difference between the teams in India and he was excellent in Australia three years ago. This is far from the vintage performance that Anderson produced in 2010-11, but his chances of being involved when Australia return to the UK in 2015 remain decent.
Graeme Swann: Age: 34 Record in the series: 7 wicket at 80 apiece. Chances of being involved in 2015: Low.
Swann has bowled better than his figures suggest. On pitches offering him little – he is far from the first spinner to find life tough in Australia – and invariably facing match situations providing the batsmen with a license to attack, he has been given very little opportunity to shine. The relative lack of left-handers in the Australian order has done him few favours, either, while the lack of turn has rendered his arm-ball something of an irrelevance. You could not tell from the figures, but he produced his best bowling of the series in Perth, gaining pleasing dip and beating as good a player of spin as Michael Clarke in the flight in the first innings. He has failed to find much turn, however, and has also not generated the bounce of his opposite number, Nathan Lyon. There have been occasional, though unconfirmed, signs that his right elbow – twice operated upon and an increasing concern – is bothering him again and a nagging suspicion that he is not quite able to sustain the dip and turn he once could through long spells. With many, many miles on the clock and plentiful opportunities in other walks of life beckoning, it would be no surprise if Swann retired from at least one form of the game in the coming weeks.
Kevin Pietersen Age: 33 Record in the series: 165 runs at 27.50 Chances of being involved in 2015: High.
It is the manner of Pietersen’s dismissals that provokes such criticism. It can often seem he is getting himself out: twice he has been caught clipping to mid-wicket, twice he has been caught pulling and once he has been caught on the long-on boundary when trying to drive over the fielder positioned for the stroke. But such a view fails to credit the excellence of the Australian bowling against him. Pietersen has been tied down by tight bowling and inventive fields that have led to him looking for release shots. While the redoubtable Peter Siddle has gained the credit for having something of a hold over Pietersen, the truth is less straightforward. Pietersen was often forced to defend for long periods against Johnson and Harris and looked to target Siddle as the weaker member of the seam unit. People may look for easy explanations – his recent knee problems, for example – but there is little evidence of any long-term issue other than his frustration at being tied down by good, accurate bowling. There has been no shortage of fight: his strike-rate for the series – 51.40 – is considerably down on his career rate – 62.01 – and Pietersen has been conspicuous in his efforts to advise and encourage other members of the squad. He has had a disappointing series, certainly, and some will always look to punish him for perceived errors in the past. But Pietersen has recently suggested he intends to continue playing international cricket until 2015 and, whether in decline or not, remains as dangerous a player as England possess. He is far too good to be jettisoned.
Matt Prior Age: 31 Record in the series: 107 runs at 17.83 Chances of being involved in 2015: Low.
From the moment in May that Prior was presented with England’s player of the year award for the previous 12 months, his form has deteriorated. At first it was just his batting – Prior has made only one half-century in 19 subsequent innings – but of late his keeping has started to suffer, too. As a player who likes to counter-attack, part of the problem is that Prior has been brought to the crease too early against a hard ball and fresh bowlers. But he has also shown some faulty shot selection, failing to show the requisite patience and judgement about which balls to leave and defend. And, as his run of low scores increased, so his confidence has fallen. He has been another victim of some fine, disciplined bowling from Australia. The fact that his challengers – the likes of Jos Buttler, Steve Davies or Jonny Bairstow – are deemed either not to be ready or not to be in the best of form, might win him some more time, but Prior has already been the beneficiary of the selectors’ faith. Time is running out for him.