Sometimes in sport, most typically when a team has reached its lowest ebb and has abandoned almost all hope, selectors, their strategies in tatters, throw players to the wolves.
So it was at the Sydney Cricket Ground last Friday. As England gathered in a huddle around an hour before the start of the fifth ill-fated Ashes Test they made a presentation to Ulster fast bowler Boyd Rankin, batsman Gary Ballance and novice leg-spinner Scott Borthwick, not so much three debutants as three sacrificial lambs. Rankin and Borthwick in particular were symbols of the muddled thinking that undermined so much of a disastrous Ashes defence.
England had reached their nadir at the end of the fourth Test in Melbourne, a match they dominated for two days before two trademark calamitous second-innings batting collapses sealed a fourth successive defeat.
The Ashes were already gone of course but the manner of the Melbourne surrender from what should have been an impregnable position hurt more than any of the physical batterings administered by Mitchell Johnson, Australia’s menacing moustached left-arm paceman.
It was during the Melbourne post-mortem that Andy Flower, the hapless team director, and Alastair Cook, the beleaguered captain, promised change for the final Test in Sydney, where a win wouldn’t deliver redemption, but at least enable England to escape the humiliation of a 5-0 series whitewash.
So with a final roll of the dice Rankin, Ballance and Borthwick became the 16th, 17th and 18th players to walk the plank on Captain Cook’s disastrous Ashes voyage.
Making your Test match debut in front of more than 40,000 people at the SCG, Australia’s most iconic cricket venue, should be a dream come true for any cricketer but Rankin is intelligent enough to know he was sleepwalking straight into a nightmare.
It wasn’t that England were wrong in picking Rankin for Sydney, a match they eventually lost by 281 runs, they were simply doing it four Test matches too late.
Rankin, along with fellow giant fast bowlers Steven Finn and Chris Tremlett, was selected on his maiden Test tour because England were intent on hitting Australia with pace and bounce, a not unreasonable strategy in a country where the fastest, nastiest bowlers prosper.
It wasn’t Rankin’s fault that national selector Geoff Miller, Flower and Cook abandoned the plan before they had even given it a proper chance. While England’s 2010/11 Ashes win Down Under was founded on meticulous preparation and selection masterstrokes 2013/14 was all about hunches and guesswork.
Tremlett, inexplicably, was given the nod ahead of Rankin and Finn for the first Test in Brisbane despite suspicions that the Surrey bowler had lost his pace.
Rankin, on the other hand, had demonstrated during the end-of-summer ODI series against Australia, when he was England’s stand-out bowler, that he had the tools to trouble Australia’s sometimes brittle batting order.
But in choosing Tremlett before Rankin at the Gabba, on the flimsy evidence of two warm-up matches, England, as their habit under Flower and Cook, took the safe rather than the brave option. It was a strategy that gave Australia an escape route.
Thanks to Stuart Broad, England had Australia where they wanted them fleetingly on the first day in Brisbane. Australia were 100 for five and 132 for six but with Broad bowled into the ground, the tourists had no-one to knock over the tail in a manner that Johnson did with such devilish intent over five Tests.
Rankin, had he been given the opportunity in Brisbane, and especially in Perth, the fastest pitch in the world, could have been that man. Instead, inspired by wicket-keeper Brad Haddin, the runs scored by Australia’s last five wickets, along with Johnson’s 37 wickets with the ball, were the two overwhelming factors in England’s second whitewash by Australia in the space of seven years.
Michael Clarke said Australia’s strategy had been to hit England’s tail with bouncers. England, faced with incontrovertible evidence provided by Johnson, failed to respond in kind. When Rankin was ignored again in Perth in favour of the trundling Tim Bresnan, purely because England wanted to strengthen a tail long since at Johnson’s mercy, Flower had Cook showed they had forgotten how to win, only how to try and avoid defeat.
Bresnan’s series batting average of 8.5 and bowling that failed to get much above 80mph underlined the folly of that decision but by Sydney England still failed to learn their lesson, dropping Monty Panesar, indisputably a better bowler than the novice Borthwick, purely because of the Durham’s man’s better batting. And to expect an under-cooked Rankin to bowl anywhere near his best after a month as a drinks waiter was as cruel as it was unrealistic.
The evidence suggests Rankin would have made a much better fist of things than Tremlett or Bresnan had he been trusted from the start.
In the three September ODIs, he took 2-49 and was England’s most economic bowler in the defeat at Old Trafford before a superb spell of 2-31 set up a victory at Cardiff. Again in a 50-run defeat at The Rose Bowl in Southampton he conceded just 26 in nine overs, a performance that booked him a business class ticket Down Under.
No-one is pretending that Rankin would have transformed the very direction of the series - England’s dreadful batting ensured their weary bowlers stood next to no chance.
Jonathan Trott returned home and Kevin Pietersen, Cook, Ian Bell and Matt Prior, the architects of an historic series win in India a year before, were beaten men, a metaphorical white flag hoisted every time Johnson started running in.
Flower described this as an end of an era and he has to be true to his word if England are to be competitive in the next Ashes series in 2015. A revolution might be wrong, but standing still could herald another Ashes slump to rival the 1990s.
Opener Michael Carberry should be replaced by Sam Robson. The pivotal number three position, for so long occupied by Trott, will be a huge headache, the folly of the frenzied campaign to elevate Bell to that post demonstrated by his successive failures in Sydney. Pietersen should remain at four and with Bell at five and Ben Stokes at six, the batting can be rebuilt. Prior will surely re-take the gloves from Johnny Bairstow but problems remain with the ball. Broad will continue to lead the attack but how many miles are left in Jimmmy Anderson’s tank and who will take over from Graeme Swann?
Plenty of questions that need answering after the most crushing Ashes series defeat in memory.