January 7, 2009

Exile or Roman holiday?

As another Ashes year begins and English cricket has suddenly found itself pitched into a medieval-style power struggle. Metaphorical knives have been drawn, and either captain or coach (or possibly both) seems destined to be metaphorically stabbed, in either the back or the front (or possibly both).

It is a curious and unseemly situation – can the ECB afford, financially, to dispose of Peter Moores, or, cricketingly, to oust Kevin Pietersen? Can they afford not to? If Pietersen is sacked or disciplined, what effect would it have on him, the team’s best batsman and the key to victory against Australia? If he is allowed to get away with his attack on the authority of the coach, what effect would it have on the rest of the team and their relationship with their captain, also the key to victory against Australia? The ECB is essentially holding two frying pans, wondering with which one to smack itself in the head (or, alternatively, whether to clonk itself less hard with both pans simultaneously). Either way, it will make a noise and hurt.

The situation should not surprise even the most easily-startled cricket fan. When England appointed Pietersen, they knew it would be a bumpy ride. The question was merely whether it would be short and bumpy, or long and bumpy. It is, however, a little curious that the biggest bump to date should have ostensibly been caused by a dispute over the recall of Michael Vaughan (averaging 36 in 54 Tests since his eight-month explosion of batting greatness in 2002-03, and with barely a run in any cricket since last June).

The affair is complicated by the fact that a strong argument could be made for sacking Moores in any case. The English cricket boat has been drifting aimlessly in a sea of adequacy since its two-year golden age of 2004 and 2005. Moores has been paddling enthusiastically, but appears to have done little more than send the vessel round and round in circles, and claiming that the circles are definitely getting rounder.

He inherited a side that had just completed perhaps the most disastrous cricketing winter in England’s history, since when they have comfortably avoided both notable humiliations and meaningful triumphs. Most of the players have made little discernible progress individually. Under Moores, only Ryan Sidebottom averages under 29 with the ball, and only Pietersen over 42 with bat. The captain is also the only top-six batsman to have scored his runs quicker than 50 per 100 balls, and even his once formidable scoring rate and six-thwacking prowess have dipped significantly. The upshot of these statistics is that England as a team has lost its capacity to seize key moments of matches and series against strong opposition.

Of England’s best young players, Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, James Anderson or Monty Panesar have all performed reasonably, but none has improved markedly in the manner of, for example, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn. Moores’ reign has been characterised not by the disasters of the 80s and 90s, but by collective, individual and selectorial stagnation.

What, then, are the possible outcomes? The Confectionery Stall offers the following plausible scenarios for how this sorry mess may play out:

1. Pietersen wins: Moores to be sacked and/or exiled to an island in the mid Atlantic, Pietersen to become sole dictator of the English Republic Of Cricket, running the team like an old Soviet despot, overseeing parades of bowlers from the pavilion balcony in front of a 50-foot high portrait of himself.

2. Moores wins: Pietersen sacked, repatriated and sold to the IPL or Real Madrid for $50 million. Moores appoints Chris Adams captain, forges a passport for Mushtaq Ahmed, and calls up Richard Montgomerie to open the batting as he attempts to apply his successful county-championship-winning formula from Sussex to the international arena.

3. Compromise A: Pietersen to be given the Graham Ford he wants, but to promise not to be naughty in future and to do what he’s told like a good boy. Moores to stay involved in a backroom role, responsible for making tea, cakes and excuses for the team. If the ECB are going to have to pay him, they might as well get some of their money’s worth.

4. Compromise B: Pietersen to be sacked, and join Andrew Strauss, Andrew Flintoff, Paul Collingwood, a recalled Vaughan and an unretired Trescothick as ex-captains back in the ranks. It is frequently said that a great team needs many leaders, not just a captain. England should therefore fill the team with as many ex-captains as possible – ideally ten, eventually, plus a novice captain they can advise, bully and confuse. Moores to stay on as coach, but not say or do anything during practice, and observe a restriction order preventing him from being within 20 miles of the team during matches, other than for post-play press conferences.

5. Compromise C: Both to stay in their posts, but be forced to spend a week’s holiday together in Rome, to try to rekindle the magic.

Appropriately enough, this unseemly squabble has marked the beginning of the year in which multiple-royal-wedding fans and schism enthusiasts alike will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of ace squabbler Henry VIII ascending to the English throne. And what a fine cricketer he surely would have been – how intimidating for an umpire, about to raise the finger of doom after big Henry had been trapped with his big fat legs plumb in front of all three stumps, to see the latterly massive king at the far end of the pitch miming, chopping something’s head off with his royal bat. The umpires’ reluctance to trigger the mightily-appetited monarch would surely have led to him adding ‘the English Javed Miandad’ to his long catalogue of titles and nicknames (including: Defender Of The Faith, Bluff King Hal, Old Coppernose, and the Medieval Mike Gatting).

WG Grace may have had the chutzpah to replace his bails and announce that the crowd wanted to see him bat rather the bowler bowl, but even he did not wield Henry’s lethal two-pronged attack of (a) the power of life and death over opponents and match officials, and (b) a short fuse.

Later in life, when his youthful athleticism had transmuted into a colossal gut, the Bearded Beheader could even have taken up umpiring himself, and counted the balls bowled in an over with six special marbles, each decorated with a picture of one of his wives. “That was Anne of Cleves, so... two to come, batsman.”

I digress.

My money is on a pyrrhic KP victory. Moores as coach and Pietersen as captain are both dispensable. Pietersen as a player is not. But he has done himself and his team few favours in the last week.

New Zaltzman update

Thank you very much, dear Confectionery Stallers, for your kind comments about the birth and catch of my son. The boy and his mother are both in outstanding fettle, and recovering slowly from the trauma of having to rely on my historically-abominable catching skills at such a key moment of both of their lives.

The first few weeks of life are crucial to later development, and I thank a mixture of luck and the ICC that my son was born into the midst of three-Test series, with no one-day or twenty-over games to sully his earliest cricketing experiences.

Aside from his primary hobbies of squawking, guzzling and snoozing (the age-old triathlon of babyhood), he spends much of his spare time waving his arms around, perhaps suggesting that he is destined to become a spin bowler with a tendency to appeal over excitably for obviously-not-out lbw shouts.

He was patently delighted when, aged just 10 days, he was presented with his first plastic cricket set. Let me rephrase that sentence – I was patently delighted when, aged just 34 years, I presented him with his first plastic cricket set (which, with the help of some friends, I knocked in with a Test-match-intensity game of corridor cricket at 3am on New Year’s Day).

Inspired by the story of Tiger Woods’ father performing golf swings over his infant son’s cot, I have also now instigated a rigorous programme of pretend forward defences and mimed leave-alones whenever the boy is awake. One day, like his daddy, he will be a grinder. I can now only wait for the long-awaited cartoon biopic of Gary Kirsten to be released.

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