In 1998 I was part of an England team that headed into the Boxing Day Test 2-0 down. We were being outplayed by a better team and psychologically that is a tough place to be in international sport. When you’re on the wrong side of a one-sided contest it’s really quite depressing, constantly racking your brains to dream up ways to change things. Back then, what came next was probably the most satisfying England game I was ever involved in.
It is a milestone in anyone’s career to play such a historic fixture in an amazing stadium. I remember the first day, 80,000 people squeezed into the ground and the feeling of being absolutely dwarfed by the MCG – the stands are high, the playing surface is huge. It’s very easy to get overawed but on that occasion as a team we showed a degree of stubbornness and, helped by an Alec Stewart century and six wickets from Dean Headley in the second innings, we managed to win. England find themselves in a similar situation now, but can they turn it around?
They need to find a source of self-belief. Sometimes there are moments within matches that can provide a sudden transfusion, and there was one of those in 1998 as Australia chased a total they would normally have reached with ease. They were 100-odd for two, around 70 away from victory, and in the outfield I was watching helpless while the bowlers ran in and gave everything without getting any luck. Then Justin Langer latched on to this short ball and pulled it very hard, low to my right, and I dived for it and clung on.
I got very animated in my celebration – a lot of friends laughed at my reaction, and I cringe when I watch it, but it was the simmering frustration of long days in the field, of being part of an excellent side getting outgunned by a better one, of fighting hard and failing. And then something came out of nothing, and it got the whole team going. The feeling was: if we’re going to go down, let’s go down with some pride. We won by 12 runs.
Confidence and belief are essential in international cricket, and every single member of this England side has to look deep within themselves to find a way of bringing their best game when all these obstacles lie in their way – a lack of match practice, slightly alien conditions, very good opponents and a sense that the rub of the green is not quite with them. Some players are motivated by a fear of failure while other personalities, more extrovert perhaps, will be driven by the chance to be a hero on a big occasion. Whatever the inspiration is, now is the time to find it and mine it.
As a batting coach I talk about having a confidence bank, which might be full of memories of previous good performances, or might need to be topped up by the right kind of preparation in the nets. It might take a session spent hitting the shots that make you feel confident, or upping the speed of the bowling machine and dealing with it. Whatever helps you believe you’re in the best place to succeed when you step over the white line.
This week Marnus Labuschagne overtook Joe Root as the ICC’s top-ranked Test batter. I don’t think he’s technically as good as Root, but one thing he seems to have no issue with is belief. It doesn’t seem to worry him if he scores in an ugly fashion because he knows he can play at this level. The likes of Ollie Pope, Zak Crawley and Haseeb Hameed have played excellently for their counties but the leap to the international stage is huge, and some personalities clear it quicker than others. I don’t think their selection was wrong – they are the best we have – but it has been a tough experience both for the young players in the team and for those like Crawley who have not yet had a chance.
England’s batters clearly have technical issues, and have struggled to deal with the extra bounce you get in Australia. Root, for example, is very adept at opening the face of his bat and running the ball down to third, but in Australia where there is a bit more pace and bounce that is a dangerous shot which often ends with an edge through to the cordon, so one of his key weapons has been taken away.
England’s decision-making around the top of off stump has not been good enough and we’ve seen players not knowing what to play and what to leave, making bad decisions and getting punished. Australia’s bowlers aren’t much better than ours but they do have a bit more pace, they hit the pitch hard and give batters less time to make the crucial decision whether to play. But, despite the failings of the batters, in the aftermath of England’s defeat in the second Test Root blamed the bowlers’ lengths. Captains are on very dangerous ground when they start throwing blame around, and it was particularly galling to then see both Root and Chris Silverwood maintain their selection was right having left out Mark Wood, their quickest bowler.
What England need at this point is for some players to find that inner steel. I do believe they have it in them. The squad contains some strong personalities – Ben Stokes, Root, Dawid Malan – who are perfectly capable of imposing themselves as Stewart did in 1998. On paper the gap between the sides is not so big, but if England don’t find the inner strength to come out and compete the Aussies will continue to steamroller them.