When Alastair Cook's men celebrated their comfortable capture of the urn following a 3-0 Ashes series victory over Australia in 2013, the prevailing view was that England were ready to continue their ride at or near the pinnacle of Test cricket.
Indeed, with three consecutive Ashes triumphs, an ICC World Twenty20 title, a series victory in India and having ascended to the No. 1 ranking in all formats in preceding years, England's era of professionalism that had catapulted the nation to almost unmatched success certainly didn't appear ready to end in a hurry.
But it did. Rapidly.
A 5-0 embarrassment in Australia was followed by a 1-0 defeat at home to Sri Lanka, before Cook's side fell behind 1-0 to India.
Only the country's recent victory at the Ageas Bowl—the first since last August—has prevented England's situation from plummeting further again.
So could England's collapse under Cook have been predicted? Were the signs there to hint that such a scenario was possible?
In short, yes.
Of course, very few, if any, forecasted what was to come for England after that 2013 Ashes triumph (this writer certainly didn't).
But what should we have been looking for? Below, we examine the lingering warning signs that were largely missed prior to England's dramatic collapse.
Even prior to the 2013 Ashes contest on home soil, England's form line indicated that Cook's men had slipped from the lofty standards the team had reached up to 2011 under Andrew Strauss.
Indeed, despite capturing the No. 1 Test ranking following a 4-0 annihilation of India on home soil, close examination shows England were on the slide once that summer had concluded.
|England's Test Record Prior to 2013 Ashes Series|
From the end of that series until the beginning of the 2013 Ashes encounter, England won only seven of their 20 Tests, suffering heavy defeats to Pakistan and South Africa, while drawing with Sri Lanka and New Zealand when away from home.
In fact, only the famous come-from-behind triumph over India on the subcontinent at the conclusion of 2012 saw England hit anything close to top gear in that 18-month period.
|England's Series Records Prior to 2013 Ashes Series|
|2011-12||Sri Lanka||Away||Drawn 1-1|
|2012||West Indies||Home||England 2-0|
|2012||South Africa||Home||South Africa 2-0|
|2012-13||New Zealand||Away||Drawn 0-0|
|2013||New Zealand||Home||England 2-0|
Of course, Cook's men comfortably—by measure of the scoreline, at least—captured the 2013 Ashes series after an extended spell of indifferent form.
Yet, the 3-0 result flattered the home side that summer. In four of the five Tests in that series, Australia held first-innings leads.
At Trent Bridge, it was only a sublime Ian Bell century and a James Anderson masterclass that saved the hosts. When the contest moved to Old Trafford in Manchester, it was bad light that assisted Cook's men. At Durham, Michael Clarke's side were well on their way to victory before a lethal Stuart Broad stepped in, while England's close shave with victory at The Oval was very much due to Australia's bold declaration.
It was only the aberration at Lord's that indicated an obvious difference between the two teams.
In short, England's Ashes victory in 2013 was the result of fleeting moments of individual brilliance being enough to overcome an inferior, shaken opponent.
Thus, England's sense of superiority prior to the disastrous 2013-14 tour of Australia had been based upon reputations rather than true form.
The extent of the collapse thereafter could never have been predicted, but the indicators were there that this England team was beginning to occasionally flirt with mediocrity.
From a deeper statistical perspective, there were also strong signs that England's dominant Test outfit was beginning to crack as the 2013-14 Ashes series in Australia approached.
As a collective, Cook's side had begun to enjoy significantly less dominance than what was witnessed under Strauss, seeing the team's blueprint for success gradually eroded.
From the beginning of 2012 onward, England's impenetrable batting lineup ceased its rampant rate of scoring, removing the scoreboard pressure that had typically been applied and thereby forcing a heavier workload on the bowling attack.
|England's Declining Statistical Record|
|Statistic||Dec 2009 - Dec 2011||Jan 2012 - Nov 2013|
|Record||P24 W16 D5 L3||P25 W10 D8 L7|
|400+ Scores For||16||8|
|Average Runs Per Wicket For||45.51||32.89|
|Average Runs Per Wicket Against||28.22||31.65|
The most telling differences between the two periods, of course, are the 400-plus scores and the average runs per wicket with the bat.
Whereas Cook, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior had combined to form the spine of the most relentless batting ensemble in the game up until the team's hammering of India in 2011, all five men found a slippery downward spiral thereafter.
The captain suddenly has his game worked out by opponents around the world, Pietersen's indiscretions robbed him of continuity, Trott's game disintegrated with his troubled psyche, Bell simply couldn't maintain the pace, while it was the workload that caught up with Prior.
|Falling Records for Key England Batsmen|
|Player||Dec 2009 - Dec 2011||Jan 2012 - Nov 2013||Differential|
Only helping to maintain England's wavering sense of superiority was the bowling attack led by James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann.
Remarkably consistent over an extended period, the trio's brilliance with the ball was enough to prevent England's crumbling batting from catastrophically harming the side.
That was, of course, until the 2013-14 Ashes tour arrived.
|Bowlers Who Kept England Afloat|
|Player||Dec 2009 - Dec 2011||Jan 2012 - Nov 2013||Differential|
Once the bowling gave way in Australia, struggling to recover form in subsequent matches against Sri Lanka and India this summer, things fell apart rather rapidly for England.
Again, reputations clouded our judgement of England despite the slipping standards. A closer inspection into the true state of the team would have indicated losses were on the horizon.
So what broke the bowlers, then? The never-ending, life-sapping, truly absurd schedule completed by England.
In the four-year period preceding the 2013-14 Ashes contest, England had played 14 more Tests than the side who replaced them at the top of the ICC Test Rankings, South Africa.
To put that into perspective, that's as much as 420 hours of extra cricket. That's 70 days worth of Test cricket; 10 weeks or two-and-a-half months worth which England endured and South Africa didn't.
|Tests Played From Dec. 2009 - Nov. 2013|
Both Anderson and Broad shouldered a workload that has possibly never been matched in the game's history. Swann bowled until both his elbow and desire fell apart.
When the intensity of the schedule caught up with England's bowlers, the side's implosion was spectacularly horrific.
If both the team and their observers had combined the national XI's declining form, their spiralling statistics and the gruelling toll of an arduous calendar, England's collapse from 2013 Ashes winners may not have been as surprising as it was.