Champions Trophy September 23, 2009

Getting the choke out of the way

I have spent the last 48 hours locked inside a darkened scorebox in my garden attempting to envisage scenarios in which England win the Champions Trophy

If England win the Champions Trophy, and it is an ‘if’ so big that it can be seen with the naked eye from space, it will be one of the biggest surprises in world history. © Associated Press

The short-awaited Champions Trophy is underway, and, ominously for the other seven teams involved, South Africa have started as if they mean business. The Proteas have suffered serial disappointments in recent tournaments, often pulling defeat from the jaws of victory like an enthusiastically sadistic medieval dentist (sometimes even having to stretch beyond the jaws, and wrench defeat from victory’s duodenum with special forceps).

Graeme Smith and his men have therefore unleashed a new tactic which is almost guaranteed to win them the tournament – getting their traditional choke out of the way early enough that it doesn’t matter. South Africa’s performance in being hammered by the excellent Sri Lankans suggests that they are hell-bent on ultimate glory, and are rightly unwilling to risk starting the tournament looking like potential winners. They even went so far as to enter the event underprepared and rusty, to minimise their chances of peaking fatally early.

I am mildly excited about the tournament. It is of a size and length that should preclude the possibility of losing interest in all cricket, as often happens during World Cups, and features the six strongest teams in ODI cricket, plus West Indies and England representing the world’s up-and-coming limited-overs nations, and hoping to spring a surprise or two as Ireland did in the last World Cup.

England’s 2009-10 season begins on Friday against Sri Lanka, a pathetic five days after their end of their 2009 season (which in turn had begun just over a month after their 2008-09 ended – it would seem fairer and more honest if the relevant cricketing authorities simply lined up the world’s bowlers on a bench and then walked along it, smacking each one in the kneecaps with a baseball bat).

If England win the Champions Trophy, and it is an ‘if’ so big that it can be seen with the naked eye from space, it will be one of the biggest surprises in world history. I have spent the last 48 hours locked inside a darkened scorebox in my garden attempting to envisage scenarios in which England win the Champions Trophy. I have failed. The closest I came was imagining the earth being destroyed by an asteroid strike on Thursday, leading to the tournament winner being decided by a series of coin tosses by the astronauts on the International Space Station. England lost to India in the semi-final.

After the recently-completed one-day series with Australia, I think most England fans would willingly accept such an eventuality. It should also be pointed out that, contrary to press reports, England actually won the series − their victory in game seven on Sunday gave them the whatever-it’s-called trophy under the ICC’s new ‘Winner Stays On’ rule. This was harsh on Australia, who had played well enough and put on a heroically good show of looking like they found the process stimulating and challenging.

England’s preparation for the Champions Trophy seems to have been based on engendering dangerous levels of complacency in their opponents. I know that professional sportsmen these days are repeatedly indoctrinated with the mantra that you must never underestimate your opposition, but England − entering the tournament with their two most important players absent through injury, and with many of the rest mentally and/or physically knackered after a summer that seemed destined never to end − will surely test the underestimation-avoidance capacity of the other teams in their group like it has never been tested before.

Arguably, slowly building up deep-lying complacency through 15 years of almost unbroken limited-over mediocrity might have been taking this modern-day Trojan Horse tactic a little too far, but such plans need to be adhered to with tenacity and persistence. It is clear that, in the aftermath of England’s excellent but ultimately unsuccessful World Cup campaign in 1992, those in charge of English cricket clandestinely decided that never again would the national team suffer the heartache of failing so close to World Cup glory. To date, they have been spectacularly successful in achieving that goal.

A few final thoughts on the England v Australia one-day series recently consigned to the dustbin of history like the half-eaten rat pastie that it was:

First, and most overwhelmingly: Thank goodness that’s over.

Second: The people running cricket are either idiots, or deliberately concocting the schedules of idiots. In England, not content with scarring this summer’s final weeks with a tortuously anticlimactic monotony masquerading as international cricket, they have penned in similarly uninteresting one-day series for next summer around a ludicrously compressed four-Test series with Pakistan.

I have no doubt that scheduling an international cricket season is tricky – I have trouble enough timetabling occasional showers into my weekly routine. However, if you were served the unappetising mess that passes for an English cricketing summer in a restaurant, you would send (or more likely throw) it straight back to the kitchen with a message advising the chef to look for another job better suited to his skill set.

Third: England should not be judged too harshly on this series, missing as they were key players such as Pietersen, Flintoff, Gough, Tendulkar, Warne and Henry VIII. With the first two fit and firing, they could easily have escaped with a 5-2 mauling instead of a 6-1 annihilation.

Fourth: International cricket is seldom seen at its best when it is a contractual obligation rather than the summit of the game.

Fifth: Some stats...

In one-day internationals between the eight major Test playing nations this decade, England’s batsmen:

• have the lowest batting average; • have the fifth best batting strike rate; • have blasted the equal fewest centuries; • have nurdled the second fewest innings of fifty or more; • have smote the second fewest fours; and • have thwacked the second fewest sixes.

England’s bowlers cannot lay claim to such a broad smorgasbord of ineptitude, but can boast the third highest bowling average and third worst economy rate over the same period.

England’s batsmen have now racked up three centuries in the 41 ODIs they have attempted to play in the last two years. Among the current Test playing nations, the next least prolific century makers in that time span are New Zealand and Bangladesh with seven tons each. England have also nudged their way to only 37 half-centuries in those 41 games, giving them an average of less than one 50-plus score per match. Oh dear!

All in all, these numbers suggest that England (a) are not very good at one-day cricket, (b) haven’t been very good at it for a very long time, and (c) are unlikely to get much better at it in the foreseeable future. Never mind. It’s only a game. And we won the Ashes. And Australia lost the Ashes. Those are two beacons of hope to cling to in the dark winter months ahead.

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