December 11, 2008

Everything points to an England win

With their total lack of preparation, chaotic travel arrangements, almost complete absence of public expectation and rampantly in-form opposition, it now seems inconceivable that England can do anything other than win

Cricket makes a welcome return to the world of cricket today with the beginning of two Test series. As I write, the loser-takes-all New Zealand v West Indies clash has just begun, with bragging rights as Test cricket’s second most useless team up for grabs. Shortly, and thankfully, the India-England series will commence. With their total lack of preparation, chaotic travel arrangements, almost complete absence of public expectation and rampantly in-form opposition, it now seems inconceivable that England can do anything other than win. Everything is stacked in their favour.

Allow me to explain. Preparation is overrated. Before the 1954-55 Ashes series, England began their tour with a two-day match followed by six four-day matches. Hutton’s men must have been primed for first-Test action in a way of which a modern team’s management and backroom staff could only dream. If such an elongated build-up were possible in today’s hectic cricketing age, dressing-room laptops would be exploding with excessive analysis.

When the real action finally began, however, England promptly conceded 601-8 to Australia’s batsmen, before losing a high-class top four of Hutton, Simpson, Edrich and May for just 25, and eventually being comprehensively drubbed by an innings and 154 runs. Even a highly-trained 21st-century coach would have struggled to take many positives from a defeat like that – “the boys have learnt not to bother building up for matches,” he might have said. “It’s a valuable, money-saving lesson for future tours. We should have listened to Compton.” (England did admittedly recover to win the series 3-1. But they would have won 5-0 if they had pitched up two days before the first Test and winged it.)

Alastair Cook will also testify to the futility of advance planning and acclimatisation. On his surprise Test debut on England’s last tour of India in March 2006, he scored 60 and 104 not out, thriving due to having endured two gruelling days of travel, and having no time to adjust to subcontinental conditions.

In fact, given Cook’s relatively mediocre recent form – an average of 37 and just one century in his last 17 Tests, compared with a 48 average and six hundreds in his first 17 – there is an argument that the young Essex opener should forcibly bundled onto an aeroplane and flown around for 15,000 miles before every match. Ideally, he should land on an airstrip near the stadium three minutes before the start of play, handed a bat, and ushered out to the crease before he has the chance to start worrying about all the different ways you can edge a drive into the slips without moving your feet.

Furthermore, the fact that virtually no-one expects England to win, and few will criticise them even if they are soundly beaten, may work in their favour. It should enable them to play with a freedom which they have arguably lacked since winning the Ashes in 2005 raised their supporters’ expectations to total and utter world domination, and which they have certainly lacked since implausibly pulling one of the great defeats from the jaws of a comfortable draw at Adelaide in 2006.

And finally, India may just have beaten Australia, but when they last did so in the legendary 2000-01 rubber, they followed it up by drawing with Zimbabwe (let me repeat that: drawing, with Zimbabwe), and then losing their next two series. Whereas the last time England lost to South Africa (1999-2000), they responded by winning their next four series. England, statistically as well as practically, cannot lose.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer

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