The England team that kicked off this winter’s Ashes was very familiar. Nine of the visiting side at the Gabba were veterans of the last tour Down Under.
It should have been reassuring, and perhaps at the time it was. After all, England blew their hosts out of the water in 2010-11, winning three Tests by an innings and scoring 500 or more four times in the five games.
But in two matches, Mitchell Johnson and Co have put that into a devastating hindsight, and it is not particularly pretty.
England’s selectors have for years made a virtue of stability but viewed from 2-0 down Alastair Cook’s side is starting to smack of stagnation.
Paul Collingwood retired from Test cricket at the end of England’s Ashes tour to return to county cricket with Durham. Nearly three years and 34 Test matches on, the selectors are still trying to adequately replace him.
Andrew Strauss retired last year. The opening spot he vacated is still to be nailed down.
Since Syndey’s New Year Test in 2011, eight English players have been handed a five-day debut. Samit Patel, James Taylor, Nick Compton, Simon Kerrigan and Chris Woakes were not considered good enough even to make the 18-man squad for this series.
Hopefully Durham all-rounder Ben Stokes, who played for the first time at Adelaide last week, can carve out an England career, he certainly has all the skills. But at present Joe Root is the only new face to establish himself in the team, albeit his actual role in it is still to be defined.
As England forged a reputation as one of the best teams in Test cricket there was much back-slapping about the strength of the county game. It has not served them very well in recent times.
The County Championship is a high standard of cricket – not as high as Test cricket, of course, but nor should it be. In an era of central contracts, the domestic game will never threaten to overshadow its big brother in the way club football does.
What seems to be the problem is England’s management do not appear to trust it as a testing ground.
It is a difficult balancing act.
Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick were two of the outstanding players during Duncan Fletcher’s time as England coach. The Zimbabwean was always alarmingly lukewarm towards domestic cricket.
Vaughan and Trescothick had temperaments which allowed them to perform better at the higher level. Relatively modest county records were not reflected in their outstanding performances wearing the Three Lions.
Compton suffered from the same in reverse.
Denis’ grandson earned his call-up through the sheer weight of runs scored year after year against county attacks. But as he edged closer to this summer’s Ashes series, the enormity of what he was playing for seemed to hit him. Panic descended and his form deserted him. We will probably never see him back.
Kerrigan actually played in the series – albeit in a dead rubber – and looked positively terrified.
But the absence of Graham Onions from this tour is an alarming omission.
Bowling has by no means been England’s biggest weakness on this tour, but taking just 12 wickets in two Adelaide innings is simply not good enough. So what is Onions doing in South Africa?
Onions is a better bowler than Chris Tremlett, Boyd Rankin and Steven Finn. Different admittedly, but far superior.
While Finn’s action and confidence have been dismantled by well-meaning bowling coaches, Onions has been consistently outperforming the other two for two years on the county circuit – not just in friendly, seaming Chester-le-Street conditions.
There need be no Compton or Kerrigan-style worries over his temperament. Onions has played nine Tests, averaging under 30 with the ball and taking a five-wicket haul. His durability with the bat has saved more than one Test.
England’s management are not prone to panic, it is one of their strengths, and two admittedly crushing defeats are no reason to rip up years of hard work and start again.
But it is hard to see the next three years – the next 12 months even – passing with so little reinvigoration. Exactly half of them are over the age of 30. Kevin Pietersen’s knees, Jonathan Trott’s mind and Graeme Swann’s elbow are showing signs that the unrelenting international schedule is catching up with them.
England’s selectors will need to scour county cricket for fresh talent this summer. Hopefully this time they look a bit harder.