Few things spark opinion quite like crisis. And after toothless displays in successive Ashes Tests the frenzied opinion has diagnosed crisis. Speculation and solutions have spouted from all corners with cry of youth coming simultaneously with a dewy-eyed (and muddy-headed) plea for Shane Warne to waddle out of retirement. You sense the Australian management will wade through it all until the series concludes the before unearthing that weary staple of meltdown strategies – heads on a plate.
Perhaps Ricky Ponting’s repeated talk of ‘execution’ in the press conference following the Adelaide defeat was a nod in the direction of the axe dangling above his head. But as the blame heaps outside his door, he would be forgiven if, in a quieter moment, he took solace from that popular (though stubbornly unpopulist) truism about captains being only as capable as their bowlers allow. After conceding six for 1137 in the last two innings, the prognosis on either front isn’t great.
But with Doug Bollinger’s leg-stump half-volleys leading the resistance, what could he have done? No combination of Mark Taylor, Mike Brearley and Winston Churchill could have stopped England with the attack at Ponting’s disposal. It’s fair to expect more runs of him, certainly, and more subtlety tactically, but surely “bowl straight, Sid” isn’t part of his brief.
The bowlers should know better and the man charged with mentoring them, Troy Cooley, must shoulder some responsibility. Cooley is a fascinating case. Perhaps no one has traded as lucratively on the 2005 card as him. The story by now is familiar: under this Aussie-born guru England’s Fab Four - Steve Harmison, Andrew Flintoff, Simon Jones and Matthew Hoggard – grew into an all-powering, reverse-swinging battering-ram that delivered England their first Ashes win in a generation. Cricket Australia, incredulous that it should have been their own bowlers benefitting from Colley’s wizardry instead, snapped him up a year later.
But four years on and Cooley’s star looks overvalued. As so often happens during the good years, signs warning all was not as at it seems were waved away, the doubters cast aside and the myth allowed to fester. Yet look again and you see a gaping hole in Cooley’s CV. The man who played the decisive role at Adelaide - James Anderson - was failed by his tutelage. Drowned under torrent of advice Anderson was unable to trust the method that had brought him his boyhood success and it was only once Cooley moved on that his career began to recover.
If Anderson can be written off as ‘the one the got away’ then what about Steve Harmison? Cooley joined the ECB’s ranks in 2003 and a year later Harmison had torn through the West Indies to be crowned the world No. 1 bowler. His star has plummeted ever since with Cooley unable to rectify a career that once looked so promising. The frail mind and fragile action that underpinned Harmison’s downfall are paralleled in another of Cooley’s explosive students – Mitchell Johnson.
The ‘once-in-a-generation’ bowler that Dennis Lillee spotted also had a ground-breaking series that shot him to the top spot in the rankings - against South Africa in 2008-09 - but has degenerated into a frazzled lost-soul since. His decay has left the Australian selectors in much the same quandary that inflicted England’s for all those years with Harmison. In the team Johnson is an object of frustrated and obsessive analysis but out the team he becomes the obvious solution to a pedestrian attack. Cooley has been best placed to watch Johnson’s arm, and head, get lower and lower throughout the descent but, like with Harmison, proved powerless to intervene.
Shorn of a leader, the attack has been unable to offer Ponting a secure platform on which to forge the new generation he so desperately wants. Meanwhile Cooley has been quietly shunted to head of the academy developing Australia’s touted youngsters but if his record is anything to go by Australian’s recovery could prove a long time coming.