March 19, 2009

England in West Indies, 2008-09

Time for England to employ an appealing coach

Andy Zaltzman

The official Confectionery Stall review of the West Indies v England series. Accept no substitute. This is the real thing.

More than a week has passed since the West Indies series ended in an ill-befitting flurry of excitement, like a retired accountant suddenly regretting the drab conformity of his working life and deciding to jump his mobility scooter over the Grand Canyon whilst dressed in a leopard-print leotard and wielding a tomahawk. Already, aside from Taylor’s flambéing of the England top order in Jamaica, the abiding memory of the series is of Collingwood dabbing Hinds to deep square leg for a comfortable single.

The final day frenzy was somewhat out of keeping with the majority of a series that was, for the most part, rubbish, punctuated only rarely by brief outbreaks of real cricket. In the end, Strauss took a bit of a gamble on the final day, but not enough of one, and England came to regret their first-innings fielding errors (and wasted referrals) in Trinidad, and their needless, thoughtless caution in Antigua. If the captain had taken as many risks as he routinely takes ‘positives’ in his post-match interviews, England would probably not have lost.

West Indies deserved their series win, for producing the one decisive passage of play in the four matches, and for having the requisite doggedness (and a sufficiently high boredom threshold) to play for a draw for 15 consecutive days. Not long ago, holding on for 15 overs would have been considered something of a triumph. Time will tell whether this victory constitutes the waters breaking in the long-awaited rebirth of West Indian cricket, or just a minor early contraction, or even merely an incidental bout of stomach cramp brought about by excessive consumption of gherkin-flavoured ice cream. At least there are strong signs that the decade-long gestation may soon be over, and the cricket world will hopefully soon be able to celebrate the arrival of a beautiful, bouncing new-reborn West Indian cricket.

England deserved their series loss, for producing the one truly dire passage of play in the series, and for failing to take major opportunities twice – their flawed decision-making, crucial dropped catches and damaging caution combined to help them avoid what could have been two excellent wins in unfavourable conditions.

I cannot remember a series in which there has been so much dull and pointless cricket. In the last three Tests, England faced 246 overs from part-time bowlers – that amounts to almost three full days of spine-chillingly vapid cricket, from which England collated 880 runs for 11 wickets at 3.6 per over. Cricket is not supposed to be an endurance sport. Nor is cricket-watching. Both came close in this series.

It says much about Test cricket that, even so, three of the four games had spectacular climaxes. However, if pitches like this are allowed to proliferate, Test cricket will die a slow, painful and deserved death. A few die-hard fans will remain gathered sadly round its bedside urging each other to remember it how it had been in its heyday, and not in its final decline into oblivion when it was but a hollow, spluttering shell of the great game it had once been. Meanwhile, administrators will bicker over who should take custody of its less magnificent but more commercially-minded children, 20-over and 50-over cricket, and who should hold the pillow over Test cricket’s face until the twitching stops.

Nevertheless, looking ahead to the Ashes, England are not, I think, in as bad a state as a series loss to one of world cricket’s weaker teams would suggest. The batsmen, having been in something of a collective slump for a couple of years, have mostly buffed their averages and confidence.

Monty Panesar roars his anguish as another appeal is turned down, West Indies v England, 5th Test, Trinidad, March 10, 2009
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Of the bowlers, Swann was excellent throughout, taking more wickets in three matches than Warne took in the Caribbean in his entire career. (Swann took 19 scalps in 3 matches compared to the great Australian’s 17 in 7 – that is 2.6 times as many wickets per match. If Swann can repeat his wickets-per-match superiority over Warne during the Ashes this summer, he will take 76 wickets in the five tests. That is a stone-cold fact.)

Broad and Anderson emerged with creditable returns, and must be ticking off the days until they are released to bowl on a fair surface. If England can find a new fast bowler and a new number 3 batsman, or at least overhaul, respray and relaunch old ones, and a pair of magic wicket-keeping gloves, they should be competitive. It would help if Australia do the decent, gentlemanly thing, and sustain two or three key niggling injuries before the series. And don’t discover a spinner.

England will have a greater chance of success if they fill the glaring vacancy in their multitudinous non-playing workforce. The team’s support staff has for some time been one of the British government’s principal strategies for keeping unemployment levels in check, and current figures suggest it is the only one still working. However, one crucially important position remains unfilled, arguably the key role in preparing the players and enabling them to extract the maximum benefit from their performances − an appealing coach.

Appealing is one of the most important facets of the modern game, and England are hopeless at it. Panesar, of course, is the worst. Technically, his appealing arguably has more flaws than his batting and fielding combined. Everything is wrong about it – the vocal tone (too much of a caterwaul), the facial expression (too imploring), the desperate hand-clapping (too much like an out-of-his-depth primary school teacher trying to control a classroom full of naughty children), the backwards hopping (it seldom pays to look like you have just trodden on a snake unless you have actually just trodden on a snake).

England must invest some of the ECB’s billions teaching their bowlers how to convince an umpire – personally, I think the two-fingered point from the crouched position is usually effective, possibly accompanied by a gradual arching of the back; and it might be worth trying an old-fashioned barked ‘howzat’ rather than the modern extended eleven-man yowl.

And now for the one-day series. I admit that I struggle motivating myself to watch 50-over cricket, and England continue to look as well-equipped for the purpose as they do for a polar expedition, but it would be nice to see England finish at least one match this winter with a smile on their faces.

Next time: Part 1 of the World Unpredictable XI.

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

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Posted by Chris on (March 26, 2009, 19:47 GMT)

ur post r few n far between..u have to write more often..

Posted by petersuch4england on (March 26, 2009, 14:00 GMT)

Let's be clear - this was a monumentally dull series. I think Chris & others who associate complaints with an impatience born of raised expectations in recent years are slightly missing the point. Its not about the speed the runs are scored at, but how difficult it is. Boycott & Gooch may not have been exciting, but they could provide gripping periods by hanging in where others couldn't. The issue here, and it is a serious one, is that flat pitches take all the tension out of the game, and allow mediocre batsmen (viz England) to masquerade as quality. Incidentally, I would not blame the WI team - they held on for a landmark series win and fair play to them. The issue over flat pitches is global (Lords is an obvious example) and threeatens to reduce the quality of the cricket we love.

Posted by dan on (March 25, 2009, 13:26 GMT)

Another hilarious post Andy. Only one complaint... I just wish you would post more often! I've a suggestion for the most unpredictable XI: Sachin Tendulkar... for his bowling.

Posted by keyur on (March 22, 2009, 17:35 GMT)

my suggestion for the unpredictable player from australia is to pick the spinner. The spinner will keep changing every match(beau caisson,bryce mcgain,cameron white,jason krejza,nathan hauritz) and hence will be unpredictable!!!

Posted by bruce g charlton on (March 22, 2009, 10:06 GMT)

There are two basic ways of appealing effectively - both based on alpha male intimidation.

The first was perfected by Alan Donald.

The bowler spins round and points his index finger directly at the umpires head like a pretend gun; and crouches, staring with narrowed eyes and directing the gun - I mean finger - right between the umpires eyes until he gives a positive decision.

But Donald was so great a bowler it is hard to know whether appealing really made any difference.

The premier bowler who elevated moderate talent to a level of solid international performance by appealing was Dominic Cork.

Cork's method was to thrust his groin at the unpire while arching his back. In effect Cork pointed his (thankfully invisible) penis right between the umpires eyes, until he got a positive decision.

Clearly, having an invisible but real penis pointed between your eyes is more intimidating than an imaginary gun - so Cork should be appointed England's appealing-coach.

Posted by mombasa on (March 21, 2009, 17:35 GMT)

about the dull XI, people seem to have forgotten ricardo powell.

Posted by Chris on (March 21, 2009, 6:37 GMT)

It's cute how many people have such a rose-tinted view of test history. Imagine the England-West Indies series with better fast bowlers, but turn it into an entire decade, and you have the '80s. For decades, test cricket was about sustained periods of not much happening, followed by the occasional moment of game-changing activity, followed by more accumulation - this changed in the '90s, but that's just because of how awesome Australia were. We've gotten so used to it, however, that as test cricket reverts back to what it was for decades, we get bored.

Not to mention the fact that much of the criticism comes from England, who had players like Gooch and Boycott making a career out of being boring while not getting out.

Finally, it should also be pointed out that you couldn't expect the West Indies to do anything but play for a draw when they're conceding 500+ in the first innings. What should they have done? Declared while they were 200 behind?

Posted by Roger@1stSlip on (March 21, 2009, 2:36 GMT)

The 'coaching' position, I agree is fundamental. England cricket's underlying problem is it's poor administration and management. The governing body seems incapable of leading to ensure that the England team have a) a world-class coach and b) a strong captain. Much of England' confidence & success in the 2005 Ashes was correctly attributed to firstly great 'coaching' thanks to eg the Australian Troy Cooley who showed the Quicks how to reverse swing and get Australians out and secondly Vaughan's inspiring and confident captaincy. How can the England team be expected to perform confidently in the coming 2009 Ashes without a top coach and with a captain who is really just a stand-in/2nd choice for/to Pietersen. To stand any chance in the 2009 Ashes, the ECB must get on and rapidly make a strong, progressive appointment of a worldclass coach and secondly they must swallow pride and return Pietersen to be captain because he is the only one who can psychologically intimidate the Australians.

Posted by Liaquat on (March 20, 2009, 21:38 GMT)

Brilliant - Keep up the good work! You would think that all this pressure on test cricket to compete with the new the kid on the block; the administrators would at least make an effort to make it more attractive. Fat chance!

Posted by TrueBlue on (March 20, 2009, 13:58 GMT)

Risk taking has never been a strong point in English cricket and as long as you allow the Yorkshire pudding called Boring Boycott media space, you'll get confused English pudding. KP is the only cricketer who plays to win simply because he played under Warne who instills a winning culture. Three one loss for the Ashes if England is lucky. Can you pommies cope with blunt Aussie coaches. West Indians won the series by getting a task master coach who knew trench warfare. You could probably win if you paid Warney enough but then you'd hate his lip and Collingwood would be very unhappy LOL. Stuey Clark will destroy England after the quicks are done.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andy Zaltzman
Andy Zaltzman was born in obscurity in 1974. He has been a sporadically-acclaimed stand-up comedian since 1999, and has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4. He is currently one half of TimesOnline's hit satirical podcast The Bugle, alongside John Oliver. Zaltzman's love of cricket outshone his aptitude for the game by a humiliating margin. He once scored 6 in 75 minutes in an Under-15 match, and failed to hit a six between the ages of 9 and 23. He would have been ideally suited to Tests, had not a congenital defect left him unable to play the game to anything above genuine village standard. He writes the Confectionery Stall blog on Cricinfo.

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