Another England Ashes batting collapse – but don’t blame the fear factor | Barney Ronay

The idea that England lack courage may be seductive but it underplays both their travails and Australia's brilliance

Long before England's collapse to 23 for five on the second morning of the fifth and final Test match at the Sydney Cricket Ground this Ashes tour had already been transformed into a kind of viking funeral for what was previously – even quite recently – a rather imperious England team. This has been the tone of things from Adelaide onwards, an extended mass debrief on exactly where, when and how everything that could go wrong has managed, as it turns out, to go so badly wrong. It is an anatomy of failure that has again centred in Sydney on a specific quality deemed to be lacking . Guts, sinew, spleen, backbone, heart: frankly, given their depleted physique it's a miracle England's players can even drag themselves off the team bus. Either way the missing element in the view of many on both English and Australian sides seems to be courage.

On Saturday morning the weekend sports section of Australia's excellent broadsheet newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald carried a large cartoon of a typically craven English batsman cowering behind his stumps in a pose of snivelling surrender. And throughout the series, from David Warner's unfortunate – and retracted – comments about seeing fear in Jonathan Trott's eyes, the vocabulary of timidity and cowardice has been the dominant motif of England's defeat. Not a lack of skill, aptitude, application or collective momentum: but of simple heart.

This is clearly a seductive narrative in any sporting contest, not least for a nation that likes to define itself in terms of pluck, boldness, flinty-eyed derring do and all the rest of it. But even on a day at the SCG where England's batsmen were again swept away by some relentlessly high quality pace, seam and spin bowling it still seems to strike a false note. Not only does the Pommie-milksops narrative devalue the fine-point skills of Australia's bowlers. It underplays the scope and complexity England's travails. As analyses go, this is pretty much a dead end. The cop out is a cop out.

Not that Mitchell Johnson isn't a genuinely fearsome sight when he bowls quickly and accurately, as he did here again in the morning and afternoon sessions, producing at will that horrible throat ball, the ankle-rapping slingshot-yorker and in between a relentlessly tight line on off stump. In the past Johnson has at times resembled a superb natural athlete – a passing decathlete, or a world champion caber tosser – handed a cricket ball and given some basic instruction in how to wang it down to the other end as quickly as possible. But it is a pedigree sense of menace now, that startling natural flexibility married to a shark-like, splay-footed sprint to the wicket, and a sense from the opening overs at the SCG of a thrillingly theatrical spectacle in play. Why do England's batsmen look frightened at times like these? Because Johnson is frightening.

Not that this makes them cowards. To feel no fear in these circumstances would be unnatural, albeit for top class batsmen this is usually kept at bay by an armour-plating of technique, confidence and competitive instinct. Graham Gooch has said he only once felt physically frightened while batting – against a prime West Indies pace attack, the kind that came at you all day, not in four-over Mitch-power spells.

And here Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell were not frightened out by Johnson and Ryan Harris, who again bowled with a captivating sense of controlled aggression, a vast square double helping of a man, gliding in with his arms dangling at his sides like cured Italian hams. Harris bowled a brilliant first over of the day that brought with it the wicket of Alastair Cook. Cook has been described as a captain whose chief tactic is effectively to have no tactics. Here he was out batting in a way that came quite close to not batting at all, lbw playing no shot to a snaking high speed in-ducker.

At the other end Johnson versus James Anderson provided a study not in fear, but in bravery and skill in an uneven contest. Anderson was hit on the thumb by a 145kph lifter, and there were air-shots and swishes in among the blocks. But at the end of his half hour England's nightwatchman was applauded into the old pavilion by the cognoscenti even as the rest of the ground was getting on with booing Kevin Pietersen's entrance. Like Anderson, Pietersen ducked and writhed like a man being jiggled all over with a high precision cattle prod, a state of indecision that is a response to many things, above all the basic trauma of Australia's relentless competitive intensity in this series.

And really it is perhaps more a loss of control that Australia's fast bowler's have induced, bringing with it the unfamiliar spectacle of highly-skilled professional sportsmen finding suddenly that they are unable to perform reflex actions with any degree of certainty. There is a huge difference between an accurate, searching 85mph and an accurate, searching 92 mph, compounded by the fact England's batsmen haven't often faced bowling of such relentless speed in recent years. Chuck in the vitriolic intensity of the occasion and hence perhaps the jitteriness of some of England's batting, the sense of involuntary movements, of a loss of balance and certainty. England have been similarly spooked by high quality spin bowling in the past, found to be lacking technically and temperamentally by Muttiah Muralitharan or Saeed Ajmal, but nobody calls you a coward on such occasions

Perhaps it was the lack of accumulated scar tissue that helped Gary Ballance look the most composed member of England's top five on his Test debut. Eventually Ballance was hit on the helmet by a fast, straight bouncer he simply lost sight of, but he was back into line next ball. Ben Stokes also remained commendably focused, even as he was crunched on the foot by another gymnastic full-body Johnson yorker and sent staggering away towards square leg like a movie cowboy in the throes of a protracted death scene. It is a tempting notion: the collapsible Poms, terrified into submission by a man with a glowering moustache. But the fact remains England – and more to the point Australia's brilliantly coherent bowling attack – deserve a little more. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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