England in West Indies, 2008-09 February 9, 2009

England's 24-carat debacle


Oops. From an England perspective, that Test match was, at best, a blooper. A joyous occasion for a resurgent West Indies, and thus for world cricket as a whole, but, for England, a 24-carat debacle; a pure, unadulterated fiasco sandwich with lashings of farce. Even the most riotously optimistic England supporter would struggle to find more than the most lukewarm of positives to snuggle up to on these cold winter nights. And as an England fan, it is hard for me to find much humour in a situation so cricketingly bleak, especially when the rest of the cricket world is already laughing its head off.

Two days after the event, English cricket is still stumbling around in a state of catatonic shock, this fresh embarrassment heaped upon its recent upheaval, which possibly explains coach Andy Flower’s almost outlandish suggestion that it is now “best to stay calm and not to have knee-jerk reactions on selection”.

While I accept that it may be necessary after such a humiliation to allow sufficient time for the investigating authorities to bag and label all the evidence, I would argue that neither staying calm nor artificially fixing the selectorial knee in a rigid brace is now a sensible course of action. The selectors’ response to England’s prolonged stagnation over the last two years suggests that the knee in question is monumentally arthritic in any case – any sign that it retains some capacity at least for bending, if not full jerking, would now be welcome. If Owais Shah does not play in the second Test, he would be fully justified in rifling through Ian Bell’s bag to see if Edgy from Edgbaston possesses incriminating photographs of the selectors dressed up like Douglas Jardine and the Nawab of Pataudi at a Bodyline-themed orgy.

I have detailed England’s batsmen’s diminishing returns in previous pieces. In the illusory name of loyalty, England have accepted and indulged adequacy for too long from too many, and their obstinate refusal to contemplate shuffling their batting pack from time to time has left them in the avoidably idiotic position of having a swathe of players in career slumps but no-one with more than fleeting Test experience to replace them.

Bell and Cook have both shown sufficient qualities to suggest that they will be good Test players for some time, but surely both would benefit from a spell ironing out the technical and mental quirks of their games away from the pressure of international cricket, to relearn the art of building an innings in less demanding surroundings (Bell’s 199 at Lord’s against South Africa immediately followed a double century for Warwickshire). The Australian teams of recent vintage suggest that many if not most batsmen peak in their late 20s and early-to-mid 30s. For England to obsessively retain their younger players may even be to their long-term detriment.

Without nostalgically longing for a return to the breakneck selectorial speed-dating of the 1980s (when attending a Test match had the added frisson that most of the spectators could entertain realistic hopes of playing in the following game), being dropped should not be a cataclysmic event. Ideally, England should reach a situation where they effectively have a squad of 16 or 17 players who can make up the match XI according to form and fitness, rather than according to from whom the ECB feels it needs to its their central contract’s money’s worth.

The two most disturbing aspects of England’s performance were the familiarity of the failings – the visual and statistical evidence is clearly of a team which is not only failing to learn its lessons, but is skiving school altogether – and the increasingly disturbing dependence on Pietersen.

The Hampshire Hammer is the only batsman scoring hundreds regularly (9 in his last 23 Tests, plus two 90s; by comparison, Strauss has 4 centuries in his last 26 matches, Cook 1 in 20, Bell 2 in 22, Collingwood 2 in 18, and Flintoff 1 in 35). He is also currently the only frontline batsman who is both willing and able to attack to the opposition (even Flintoff is striking less than 50 per 100 balls since his return last summer). England urgently need at least one more aggressor – too often a couple of wickets leads to a near-total scoreboard paralysis.

Pietersen’s wicket is therefore now worth too much to both England and their opponents. If Alfred Hitchcock were directing the television coverage of England’s Tests, whenever Pietersen is out in a tight situation, he would cut straight to close-up shots of the widening eyes of the rest of the team, accompanied by three dramatic, discordant violin chords. (One also assumes that Hitchcock would put an end to the irritatingly excessive use of the zoom whilst the ball is in flight between bowler and batsman.)

Nevertheless, from a broader cricketing perspective, this was an inspirational match in many ways, with Benn providing their best slow bowling since Gibbs, and Taylor their best spell of fast bowling since the retirements of Walsh and Ambrose ended the forty-year lineage of great Caribbean pacemen. As new dawns go, this promises to be far less false than any of recent vintage.

England, however, are a team with serious, long-standing problems. So, for my second Ashes prediction, I now confidently revise my previous 2-2 forecast to a disgruntling 3-1 Australian win. The Aussies may be declining, but they can be confident that England are getting worse faster.

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