IT all began at least six months before the Australians landed in England. Victories over this and that bunch of rabble had boosted the England team's profile so much that the media was full to overflowing and almost at bursting point. Hence the collective utterance - this England team had the best chance of any in recent times to win back the Ashes from the Australians. Indeed, everybody but the players themselves had come to treat it as an article of faith.
Three Tests down the line, the journalists have lapsed into a collective silence. The Ashes have been retained by the Australians who look like they will run away with a 5-0 drubbing of an England team, the first since 1921. No longer does one hear anything about the virtues of the England team, be it in batting, bowling or fielding. What went wrong? Or has there been some conspiracy afoot?
After the first Test loss, the England team hardly reacted. It was taken as an aberration. There was no panic, no call for drastic action, no battening down of the hatches. No, it was assumed that it would be an entirely different story in the second Test. As indeed it was, but only in terms of the victory margin. Australia crushed the life out of England, outplaying the Poms on every conceivable score. What's more they also gave Nasser Hussain a pretty bad thumb, one that has put him out of action for some time to come.
A great many cracks have been papered over in the past by the England selectors and coach in the wake of the team's good showing against teams like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the West Indies. The fact is, no team should ever consider a good showing against Pakistan to be a badge of achievement - the team is so erratic it can beat the best on its day and also lose to the worst outfit. The West Indies are a rabble, nothing less, though in the absence of Brian Lara they seem to be a much better outfit (strange though that may sound). And Sri Lanka, in my humble opinion, are no Test team, definitely not one to test the mettle of an opponent.
England went into this series so confident in the ability of Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick that they spared not a thought for Alan Mullally, the one bowler who troubled all the Australians during the last tour Down Under. A pedestrian bowler like Gough (I would have loved to see him bowl to Viv Richards; it would have probably ended his career) was put up on a pedestal and better options were not even considered. The frail English batting was considered sufficient. Apart from Atherton, Thorpe (who often plays nothing shots) and Stewart, is anybody else even remotely Test class? Trescothick is a one-day player, one of those who hits out and gets out in the old Sri Lankan tradition. Who can dig in and play a long innings over a couple of days apart from the three cited earlier?
England cricket followers can delude themselves all they want, but this team was a disaster waiting to happen. Now it has. Two more Tests and if the Australians relax, then England may win one. This I doubt because there is a great deal of bloody-mindedness among this Australian mob. They have tasted blood once against the West Indies and felt what it is like to have their heels on the necks of a team which once beat the daylights out of them. A whitewash of the old enemy will be doubly sweet.
The Ashes are, frankly, an overblown contest. The Australians would have done well to play a three-Test series in England and give South Africa a full five-Test series at home in the forthcoming Australian summer season. That would have been a series worth watching. Tradition is all well and good but being a slave to it and losing sight of commonsense should not become a practice.