For professional sportspeople there is nothing more galling after a defeat to be of the mind that you haven’t given your best, or at least given your all. Losing comes with the territory of competing against other teams and individuals who are like-minded and like-dedicated. There is no shame in losing, even Edwin Moses eventually came second.
There may be recriminations if second place meant that you lacked character or courage. To win sometimes you have to take a gamble, especially when the opposition are playing on home turf and their credentials stack up better even if only on paper. The truism that games aren’t played on paper comes immediately to mind.
England have at times competed with , but “at times” doesn’t win Test matches as it may win a 20-over thrash. The three Tests have gone to script (no, not the Indian fixer’s script). The teams looked evenly matched in the batting and needed their captains to dominate – Steve Smith has done so, Joe Root has not. “Trying too hard” as an excuse confirms Root’s inexperience and he will come out of this examination with a tempered and toughened exterior, but will he have learnt to take risks to win?
The home conditions of hard bouncy pitches has proven true, more or less, and that has put a gilt edge on the power and pace of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood. Nathan Lyon has found some unexpected turn to go with his high revving and curling off-breaks and the combination of pace and guile has been irresistible. Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad have not been the champions they are on their own dunghills in the exotic environment Down Under. This lack of penetration with Kookaburra balls on concrete slabs was predicted and England’s inability to dismiss twice has come as no surprise.
England have had recent success with Moeen Ali as their all-rounder who could take handy wickets but their selectors must be criticised for the lack of homework and the subsequent lack of courage in thinking that a part-time spinner backing up medium-pace bowling was going to win Test matches in . (Trevor Bayliss made the same observation about his batsmen who bowled spin not being effective in India only last year.) Ergo, 3-0 should not surprise anyone – picking a team and crossing your fingers hasn’t proven a winner since the gladiators used the Coliseum as their home ground.
Being outplayed and outgunned isn’t really the wider issue, lack of foresight and courage is. England picked young leg-spinner Mason Crane in their squad, a bold and tantalising move that signalled the belief that wrist-spin could be successful in . England’s dalliance with leg-spin has not been comprehensive. Robin Hobbs’ seven Tests from 1967 to 1971 was eventually followed by Ian Salisbury’s 15 Tests from 1992 to 2000 – and now Crane on tour in 2017. Not much to go on is it? However, Crane had a head start on Hobbs and Salisbury in that he has played first-class cricket in and this should have been a significant prod to those planning the Ashes retention.
Try something: Joe Root has avoided taking any major risks. Photo: AAP
Crane had been (wisely) sent to Sydney on an ECB scholarship to play club cricket and bowl on harder surfaces in tough, competitive matches, much of which would be two-day games and spin used in bulk. As a part of the education he came under the mentorship of Stuart MacGill and he bowled many overs at NSW Sheffield Shield practices. Both these elements moved his game forward to such an extent that when NSW found all of its front-line spinners injured or on national duty Mason’s club form and net performances won him a starting spot in the Sheffield match at the SCG – a fertile hunting ground for wrist-spinners down the centuries.
His selection wasn’t taken lightly. NSW rarely plays overseas stars (Imran Khan back in 1985 an exception when Kerry Packer paid for him to recuperate in Sydney) and many thought a local prospect should get the spot. Crane impressed all with his bowling, batting and fielding and his generally positive attitude. He has a flighted trajectory to his leg-spinner which has the dip and curve of a ball with plenty of revolutions. The wrist snaps with force and the wrong ‘un seems to gain pace off slow pitches. The action has elements of Shane Warne and Steve O’Keefe and MacGill (and maybe even Salisbury), as most aspiring English leg-spinners look overseas for inspiration and imitation.
He did send down some hittable stuff like most wrist-spinners but he took five important wickets with outstanding deliveries. David Hookes had a tongue only half in his cheek, saying “when you earn the baggy blue there is a baggy green in the same bag”, well it couldn’t be done with Crane but it would have been nice. He played “like an n” as one wizened veteran observed, and I can think of no higher praise than that. NSW won the game and Crane wasn’t needed for the following away games. Then Hampshire had little use for him when he arrived home for the county season.
Those who watched him go about his business were sure that he would return in the following summer wearing the three lions in a Test match. Half of that has come to pass but the timidity of the England’s selectors has, so far, stalled the fulfillment of the prophecy.
He could have played in Brisbane – Warne’s most successful venue. At 1-0 down he could have played in Adelaide, a surface where, in recent years, the pink ball or bowling ball has taken turn from day one, under lights or under burning sun. With the Ashes disappearing at warp speed he most definitely should have played on the bouncy WACA pitch. The Perth wicket has not smiled overly on wrist-spinners over the years but the jig was up for England. Last resort perhaps.
Having not shown any propensity to use a high-risk, high-return bowler the series position should have dictated the selection especially given Moeen’s failure with bat and ball. Dropping a seam bowler for a wrist-spinner can produce angst but it can also produce ecstasy. Dropping a denoted all-rounder would have gone way too much against the grain.
Ben Stokes’ absence created more than a hole in skill and belief, it disabled the selection of Crane.
To win sometimes you have to take a gamble, you have to stick your neck out and show some imagination. Picking Crane is much less a gamble than picking Hobbs or Salisbury. While Crane has warmed the benches the Ashes have been lost, and now the rubber is dead the gamble has become inconsequential but maybe the bluebag will play in the fifth Test at his second home.
After all, he does have form there.