The Ashes: Fear stalks the nets

Fear is a strange thing. It re-wires your brain, forces you to make irrational decisions and think unnatural thoughts.

Imagine someone drags you up on stage in front of a crowd of 10,000 people, then tells you to stand there and “act normal”. It is impossible. You can’t even remember what normal looks like. Your palms are sweaty, your face goes crimson and your legs turn to jelly.

Most people have at some stage been involved in a car crash. In the split-second before impact, time seems to slow down. A chill passes through your body and your senses are heightened. This is what psychologists refer to as the “fight or flight” instinct. Your body senses danger, and gives you a shot of adrenaline. You can use it to stand your ground and take on the threat, or you can get the hell out of there.

This, surely, is what England’s cricketers are currently experiencing. Someone – namely a previously ridiculed bowler with a preposterous moustache and a tattoo on his doing arm – is flinging 92mph missiles at their heads and stumps. It’s not easy to deal with, even for experienced batsmen.

But surely it’s not that simple, I hear you cry. Johnson can only bowl from one end, and he can’t keep going all day. But it’s as much about what he doesn’t do as what he does. He plants a seed of doubt in the players’ minds, and waits for it to grow. Fear spreads through cricketing teams like knotweed. Even if nothing is said by the outgoing batsmen as they return to the shed, their teammates can sense it. They know that shortly they will be the bullseye, and their natural game goes out of the window. We’ve seen it happen to this England side time and time again, against pace and spin.

On the third morning at Adelaide, with England already one wicket down and still more than 500 runs adrift, Joe Root had a moment. Facing his first delivery from Nathan Lyon, he elected to play a wild slog-sweep, picking out the sole deep fielder and sparking yet another collapse.

Kevin Pietersen suffered a similar fate. Tied down by his nemesis Peter Siddle, KP wandered down the wicket and picked out one of the two fielders positioned almost obscenely close together at short midwicket. Pietersen felt he had to force the issue against Johnson’s less intimidating colleagues. Michael Clarke planned for this, and got it spot on. The trap was set, and the result was comically predictable.

There is a popular, if somewhat clunky, computer game called Stick Cricket, which is probably as close as most fans will get to testing themselves against seriously fast bowling. You control a tiny figure holding a bat as a ball is hurled down the pitch. It could be a yorker or a bouncer, and there is almost no time to think. Everything is instinct, and the mere prospect of either stumps or skull taking the impact is enough to make you bash the keyboard like a chimpanzee trying to recreate act two scene three of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

England look mentally shot. How much long-term damage these two disastrous Tests have done, only time will tell. Once the Ashes have changed hands, which may well happen before Christmas, there will be plenty of time for inquests, autopsies and serialised revelations from money-spinning autobiographies. For now, fear stalks the nets.

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