England in West Indies, 2008-09 February 26, 2009

What we learnt from the two Tests in Antigua

Some things the cricketing planet has learnt from the two Tests in Antigua, and other events of the past week or so

1. The 2007 World Cup has not finished with cricket yet. It was, on many levels, perhaps the most disappointing sporting tournament since some very hungry lions ate all the Christians on day one of a scheduled 4-week festival of gladiator eating during the later stages of the Roman empire. The idiotic scenes at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium proved that it retains the capacity to disappoint even two years after it spluttered into its barely merited place in some extremely unimpressed history books.

Building a cricket stadium without a useable cricket pitch anywhere in it, despite prior warnings not to build a cricket stadium there, displayed a similar level of crass-headed ineptitude as opening a restaurant and then shooting anyone who asked to see the menu, or constructing the world’s most advanced chemistry lab and staffing it with ill crocodiles.

2. Confidence is everything. This was proved by:

(a) England’s openers. In Jamaica, neither Andrew Strauss nor Alastair Cook showed many discernible signs of ever having held a bat or strapped on pads. However, suffused with inner belief after batting through an entire Test Match at the Sir Viv Stadium, they attacked the game at the ARG with purpose. When you see Strauss spank an off-drive for four early in his innings, you know that one of three things has happened: 1. You are watching a recording from 2004 or 2005; 2. You have taken a blow to the head and need to seek medical assistance; or 3. He is in prime form. Fortunately for England, it was the last of these.

(b) Allen Stanford. If you have the bare-faced balls to pitch up at Lord’s in a helicopter, you can get away with anything. For a while. Even if it’s not your helicopter.

3. Andrew Strauss reads The Confectionery Stall. The skipper quite clearly marched to the crease with a print-out of this pre-match statistical bleat about England’s failure to score big hundreds wedged inside his jockstrap. He kept it there until he had 169 to his name. Point proved, he then wrung it out and mailed it back to Confectionery Stall head-quarters with a little note saying: “Satisfied? When did you last score a Test 150?” To which the Confectionery Stall will respond: “Never. Yet. But also I have never chucked it away straight after reaching my century in a Test match. So, let’s call it one-all.”

4. Playing cricket against West Indies is like the Soviet Empire – not as terrifying as it used to be. England have faced 184 overs of spin in two Tests this series. That is, according to the Great Omniscient Lord Statsguru, only 48 fewer overs of tweaky stuff than they received from the West Indies during the entire decade of the 1980s. And bear in mind that many of those overs were bowled either to allow the bloodstains on the batting crease to dry out, or to prolong the England innings to give Greenidge and Haynes more of a rest before having to bat again.

5. The location of all Test matches should henceforth be kept secret until two days before the start of play. The ARG, usually the spiritual home of the run-glut, gave cricket a good game with a thrilling conclusion at less than 48 hours’ notice. The Sir Viv Stadium embarrassed a sport, a nation and a cricketing great after a nine-month gestation period in which, far from giving birth to a beautiful bouncing Test wicket, it pulled a bag of sand from under its shirt and said, “Sorry, I was never really pregnant. Someone should have looked at the six-month scan. It was quite clearly just a bag of sand.”

Furthermore, the wicket for the Karachi Test produced an almost entirely pointless match, 100 runs per wicket until Sri Lanka got bored on the last afternoon and tried to lose the game for a laugh. It was almost as if some shady conspiracy was at work to discredit Test cricket and remind cricket fans quite how tedious a five-day game on a meaninglessly dull pitch can be – while Virender Sehwag was blasting his first three balls into the stratosphere in a Twenty20 international. Very suspicious. No-notice Test matches will put an end to such subterfuge.

6. There is a clause in the England team’s central contracts that allows all brains to be disengaged within 20 minutes of the close of play. This is the only logical explanation for the ritualistic sending in Jimmy Anderson as night watchman on day three. It was an entirely thoughtless decision, if one can indeed describe as a “decision” something cannot possibly have been done with even a semblance of a decision-making process.

England, in a position of zero vulnerability, had no need to protect themselves. However, they evidently thought that they would be better safe than safe. Even having taken this ludicrously conservative step, to send in Anderson illustrated a total lack of cranial activity in the dressing room.

If they wanted to protect the front-line batsmen, why not send in Swann or Broad, decent batters and clean hitters with the capacity to attack, or even Harmison, who can give the ball a merry clubbing when the stars are in the correct alignment and who has a sound enough defence to take good stab at blocking out three overs from a partially-interested bowling attack? Anderson’s long but unproductive time at the crease, with a less-than-melodious Cook at the other end, meant that the real batsmen then batted in too much of a hurry.

It might seem a relatively insignificant matter, but it is probable that it cost England the game. In all, it betrayed a team severely lacking confidence in its own ability with bat and ball, and equally severely lacking in flexibility of thought. I know it’s only a game and I’m 34 with better things to worry about and children to feed, but it really annoyed me.

7. The cricket world knows that it still doesn’t know whether it is worth England’s while persevering with Steve Harmison. He bowled well enough through his sickness in Antigua, without showing conclusively whether he is (a) still a potential thoroughbred, (b) an occasional horse-for-a-specifically-bouncy-course, or (c) ripe for retirement to the ECB’s fast bowling stud farm at Old Trafford, to be bred with a special egg containing Harold Larwood’s DNA.

Harmison now possesses a frankly Mohammed-Sami-esque set of statistics dating back two-and-a-half years. From his breakthrough second innings 4-33 against South Africa at The Oval in 2003, to his 11-76 against Pakistan at an alarmingly springy Old Trafford in 2006, he took 146 wickets at 25. Since then, he has pocketed just 47 scalps in 18 Tests at an average of 46, albeit that he has occasionally chipped in with some useful runs. So which Harmison will emerge in Barbados? The bone-jarring destroyer, or the new Derek Pringle?

England urgently need a strike bowler – in their past eight full Tests, they have twice comfortably failed to defend sizeable fourth innings targets, and twice failed to bowl themselves to victory on the back of a vast first innings lead. (Since the end of the 2005 Ashes, 50 bowlers in world cricket have taken 30 or more Test wickets. Of these, only one of the 26 with the best strike-rates is English – Sidebottom, at 17th.) They also urgently need to decide whether that strike bowler will ever again be Harmison.

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