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THE TRIUMPH OF STRATEGY OVER TACTICS

It was Sun Tzu who wrote in his epic, The Art of War: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Australia is cock-a-hoop over the 5-0 triumph over arch-enemy England and the fact that they have won back the Ashes after having suffered three consecutive soul-destroying Ashes defeats in 2009, 2010-11 and 2013.

There is no doubt that winning is more fun than losing, but without wishing to be a spoilsport, there are still some areas of concern for Australian cricket. Sun Tzu’s words are supported by the fact that Germany won many battles during the two World Wars, but managed to lose both. They did not understand as clearly as the United Kingdom and the United States of America did that a tactical focus is short-term while a strategic focus is required to win the long game.

In WWII, Britain and the US invested heavily in air power to attack Germany’s industries while the Germans laboured over the tactics to achieve success in individual battles. As George Kenney, General MacArthur’s air commander, said, “Air power is like poker… the second best hand costs you a lot and gets you nothing.” Australia, rightly, has been very tactically focused in recent times because it was essential to start winning some battles to take the pressure off individuals and the organization as a whole.

The surprise is that Australia has won this series so comprehensively with the focus fixed firmly on the short-term. The danger is that this is mistaken for a viable long-term plan. It is very important now that Australia shifts the attention to the big picture and continues with the long-term strategy that it has been following of developing youth through the system.

Some of the senior members of this Australian side have had the series of their careers, but alas, the older one gets, the less forgiving selectors are of one’s form and the more focused the press is on one’s age. All of this translates into pressure.

With another Ashes series coming up in June 2015, it will be dangerous for Australia to expect that this group can get through to that series intact. It will be even more damaging if the success of the old-stagers is taken as a sign to prefer experience over potential in the development programmes. Viable competitions are an important part of them, but young talent needs to be vigorously nurtured and supported. The only way to do that is to make sure they get the chance to play at the highest level at which they are capable. Batsmen and bowlers do not learn to play in the nets.

To produce champion batsmen, it is imperative to identify them early and to play them early. A philosophy of picking batsmen in the mid to late twenties will produce a lot of honest, hardworking professionals, but it is unlikely to produce the next Tendulkar, Lara or Ponting. England has been selecting experience over promise for 50 years and has valued safety over risk-taking and has not produced anywhere near the precocious, game-changing batsmen that India, Australia, West Indies and Pakistan have done.

Once selected, these talented players have to be supported and encouraged to ensure that they make it through the batting minefield. The records in Pakistan, in particular, are littered with talented young batsmen who have played less than 10 Tests. This suggests that either the original selection was wrong, or the talent was not given enough time to develop. Steve Waugh and Bob Simpson, for example, took more than 20 Tests to repay the selectors’ faith in them.

Because of the population and because there is little competition from other sports, India does not have to be as efficient with managing their talent as other countries, for they will always find plenty of exciting talent. Australia, for one, has to be much more efficient because the talent pool is nowhere near as large and the competition from other sports for the best athletes is intense. We cannot afford to lose any of our talented youngsters or let them wither on the vine.

Batsmen coming on to the scene late get to their use-by date quite quickly and the investment in them is no less than the investment in someone who can become a 50-Test player.

When England retained the Ashes in the northern summer, no one expected such an amazing turnaround in the return series. England appeared to be on a roll. Andy Flower and Alastair Cook probably expected to maintain their supremacy over an Australian team that had not tasted success for some time. But the signs were starting to appear that the balance was shifting. Australia replaced their coach just prior to the series in England and the initial signs were promising. Lehmann relaxed some of the team’s rigid routines and the players. He encouraged them to play with freedom. By the end of the series, Australia looked like the team that was improving while England began to look rather stale.

Cook had not made his usual mountain of runs, Root, despite his second innings century at Lord’s, had not looked secure as his partner, while the number six position was far from settled. On pitches that were designed to suit spin rather than pace, Swann was the most successful of the England bowlers at a rate commensurate with his overall career record. But this disguised the reality of the situation. He was never going to have the same impact in the return series in the less finger-spin friendly conditions of Australia. Broad and Anderson also had an impact on the series and Bresnan did his share in the third seamer role before breaking down after the third Test.

Without Bresnan, on a pitch at The Oval that was more like that which would be on show in Australia, the Australian batting line-up started to flex its burgeoning muscle. Swann looked less effective and more vulnerable than he had previously been in the series. The signs were there that if Australia could find some belief, England may be more susceptible than it had been for some time.

On arrival in Australia, it became evident that England had limited options and all of them were conservative. Cracks were appearing in the once dominant structure of the England team. Suddenly, tactics that had worked well against a fragile opposition looked flaccid and ineffectual.

Then, along came a revitalized Johnson.

The Brisbane Test took me back to the Gabba in 1974/75 when England was mugged by a resurgent Lillee and a rampaging Jeff Thomson. The tourists then had taken news of the return of Lillee, after 18 months out of the game with a career-threatening back injury, with a grain of salt and they did not believe that Thomson could be the sensation the Australian media were suggesting. On this occasion, Johnson arrived as the butt of England’s derision. He was not a threat, they said. They were to be surprised and then annihilated by his amazing revival.

The England team never recovered from the Johnson assault in Brisbane which had a more traumatic impact on the tourists than the stark figures of nine wickets for the game would suggest. Trott left the tour and the players and coaches were shell-shocked. They have not recovered and the balance between the teams shifted seismically.

As the Australians grew in confidence and played more aggressively, the Englishmen became uptight and risk averse. A faint heart ne’er a Test series won. With the Australians attacking Swann and Anderson struggling to do with the Kookaburra what he had done with the Dukes ball in England and with no third seamer of note, the England attack was decimated.

England has some serious soul-searching to do in the wake of this series, but Australia cannot afford to think that they are on easy-street either. The next 18 months will determine which country understands the significance of the difference between strategy and tactics.