England in West Indies, 2008-09 March 19, 2009

Time for England to employ an appealing coach

The official Confectionery Stall review of the West Indies v England series

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.

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