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

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  • fanedlive on May 26, 2011, 19:55 GMT

    Englands_24carat_debacle.. Retweeted it :)

  • fanedlive on February 12, 2009, 3:50 GMT

    While I am not a keen follower of English cricket, I have followed their recent form, they having played India recently and I am seriously wondering where the one win that you have predicted for England will come from. While Pietersen is definitely worth a bet to score big and maybe a flash in the pan for one or two of the to also score in the same innings, I cannot for the love of God see them being able to 20 wickets in a test to win it. There is no match winning bowler good enough in the squad apart from Flintoff (who needs to go back to his golden days to really get the wickets required) for England to win a test sooner. They definitely need someone else to also shoulder the burden of bowling the team to victory. While this might still happen in the next 5 tests vs the Windies, I cannot see that happening against and Aussie team that would be chomping at the bit to regain supremacy in the world (and maybe the rankings as well, assuming they don't get it back when they are in SA)

  • fanedlive on February 11, 2009, 23:33 GMT

    A well-written piece, but I feel England will bounce back as they did after the loss of the first test in the 2005 Ashes series. Remember, this West Indies team is notorious for monumental batting collapses.

  • fanedlive on February 11, 2009, 19:16 GMT

    I've seen couple of English selectors taking a flight to South Africa! Ehhh, trying to find another KP?

    Anyways, back to the game - its time to give Shah a good run! 3 tests atleast...give him a chance to prove us right or wrong!

  • fanedlive on February 11, 2009, 15:34 GMT

    I would like to know your take on Panesar & Vaughan...

  • fanedlive on February 11, 2009, 10:10 GMT

    whatever happened to ronnie irani? Didn't he play a few ODIs and T20 matches? I seem to recall he was an all rounder. Does he still play cricket? DJ

  • fanedlive on February 10, 2009, 17:39 GMT

    You can abuse me all you want but the truth is that England and its fans should get over their obsession with the Ashes! Deal with it when it comes, and you might do well in your next match! Half of the comments I see above could not help mention the Ashes (even as an afterthought)! It will perhaps help to think that when the Oz hit their lowest point against Saffas earlier this year, the last thing on their mind was the Ashes, while all of Eng, its press and the fans could think of were Ashes predictions! It looked to me like Eng are already under pressure to beat the depleted and wounded Aussies, and that pressure seems to be creeping into their other games! For god's sake forget about Ashes, the rest will follow!

  • fanedlive on February 10, 2009, 15:53 GMT

    Look I like English cricket and I want England to win eventhough I am a Pakistani. Over the years I have observed that, England is not really playing cricket according to what's needed. When they playing ODIs, they really playing test cricket and during test cricket, they are too defensive rather then attacking apart from KP. Englang needs to start playing 21 century style cricket and stop this 80s style cricket. Monty needs to learn the variations. Cook is too defensive and Flintoff needs to play like a bowler.

  • fanedlive on February 10, 2009, 14:59 GMT

    Michael Holding was quoted as saying that Windies cricket is over and done with and that he only performs his function as commentator. He has no hope for Windies cricket. Along come England and show how alow a team can actually go. Holding is 100% correct. Windies cricket has been hopeless for so long that most cricketers don't expect too much of them. How is it then possible that a cricket giant like England can come and loose in such a brutal way? Perhaps Holding was wrong? For me it is more an example of 2 cricketing nations in turmoil and that neither England or Windies deserve to be top rated. I am glad the Windies can get some inspiration and hopefully become strong enough to challenge teams like India, SA, Aussies again. England has to grow up, and teach their players that they are no rock stars. Practice, be patient and perform under pressure. Stop the infighting and focus on cricket. I would hate for England to give the Aussies opportunity to learn how to win again!!

  • fanedlive on February 10, 2009, 14:09 GMT

    What about Strauss, he is still not in form why did they make him Captain, I would choose him over KP as Captain material but not while he is not in form. He has that to worry about and now he has to worry about being a Captain too. They should have left KP in until after the ashes and then used the ashes loss to make the change, O yes it will be a loss unless England can work a miracle.

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