July 2, 2010

England’s World Cup chances, and a cathartic confession

An incisive preview of the big one, a mere seven or so months early, and the horrors of a childhood encounter with fast bowling

2 Shaun Tait: that's Mr Grumpy to you © Getty Images

England have chosen a very good time to register a convincing win over Australia. It has dovetailed extremely neatly with the hydraulically hyped football team exploring hitherto uncharted territories of incompetence in a World Cup humiliation that is being widely viewed as the nation’s biggest embarrassment since King Harold was tricked by the Normans into a game of Catch The Arrow With Your Eye. (In relative terms, watching England’s World Cup unfold was the footballing equivalent of sitting in a darkened cellar, watching Steve Harmison’s first ball of the 2006-07 Ashes on a continuous loop for two weeks.)

The one-day series triumph has also coincided with the government’s jovially portentous forecasts of continuing economic gloom. So by playing to their potential, and by offering genuine promise for the future, Strauss’s team have surely thrust cricket back to the top of English children’s favourite-hobbies lists, ahead of football and macroeconomics.

Congratulations are due to England not only for the all-round excellence of their play in the first two-and-nine-tenths matches, but also for cleverly raising then crushing Australian hopes by collapsing spectacularly to the point of defeat in the final one-tenth of match three, and then convincingly losing match four in order to maintain public interest in the build-up to the Ashes. If the whitewash that was obviously inevitable had been allowed to happen, who would have bothered tuning in to see Ponting’s men ritually humiliated yet again this winter? Only true sadists with no love of a genuine sporting contest.

Perhaps I read too much into it. But England have now played well enough often enough in recent limited-overs matches to suggest that their current run is not an uncharacteristic blip in a long era of carefully nurtured underachievement.

This five-match effective whitewash spread over a mere 12 days will sadly be of little value when the World Cup comes around next year. The tournament will be a test of psychological endurance as much as cricketing ability, as it crawls slowly onwards like the asthmatic brontosaurus it is. In fact, the gaps between games are mostly long enough to allow teams to commute to and from home to minimise the chances of homesickness.

Perhaps the much-and-rightly-criticised World Cup schedules of recent tournaments have been designed with this specifically in mind – not, as most people had assumed, in order to render the events so stultifying that by the time they finally ended, no one really noticed Australia winning, thus taking the gloss from their triumphs, but as a means to reduce the unfair advantage enjoyed by the host nation, by enabling all the teams to nip home to spend some quality time with their family and check their post.

Nevertheless England look a well-balanced team with plenty of batting power. Whether they can adapt to subcontinental conditions and take enough top-order wickets early in their opponents’ innings will probably dictate how far they can progress. However, the tournament basically involves a largely ceremonial month-long group stage to whittle the seven teams with an ICC ODI ranking score of 100 or more up to eight teams, followed by a three-round shoot-out featuring all the potential randomness of tosses, conditions, weather and Daryl Harper. Therefore, any team could win it with a well-timed streak of (a) form, (b) luck and (c) Daryl Harper.

It was good to see Shaun Tait damaging the speed gun again. The world needs a few more bowlers who waddle up the crease and then wang it as fast as possible. It makes for unavoidably exciting cricket. Especially if “as fast as possible” clocks in at above 95 mph, as Tait did in that fourth game.

He has played one wicketless Test in the five years since his 2005 Ashes debut games, in which he proved himself to be fast, erratic, occasionally dangerous, and, as I witnessed first-hand at The Oval, exceedingly (and self-defeatingly) grumpy in the face of mild crowd banter. Since playing a major role in Australia’s 2007 World Cup campaign, he had played just a handful of ODIs before this series, so let us hope he will feature considerably more in coming years. Too many properly fast bowlers have played far too little top-level cricket this millennium, in particular Shane Bond, Shoaib Akhtar, Jermaine Lawson and, more understandably, Harold Larwood.

I well remember my first encounter with fast bowling. It was in my second ever game of cricket, as an eight-year-old. On the back of a battling, almost heroic, innings of 1 in my debut match, I was promoted to open the batting. Having taken two extraordinary slip catches – extraordinary at least to all those who had seen me attempt to catch before – I had helped my school Under-9s reduce our opponents to 63 all out. At the age of eight, with a career best of 1, this was a daunting target, the mental equivalent, I imagine, of chasing 500 to win a Test match.

I walked out to bat with the confidence of one who had never known true failure, like a pre-1991 Graeme Hick but smaller. I was the non-striking batsman. The umpire said “Play”. I looked round to see the bowler. He was not there. Odd, I thought. I looked again. He was there. Standing on the boundary with the ball in his hand. At this point, I was 90% defeated. I had seen Michael Holding on TV. In thundered the bowler, if an eight-year-old can indeed thunder, before flinging his missile of destruction towards my opening partner. I barely saw it. Perhaps because my eyes instinctively closed in anticipatory terror. I heard a distant thud, as the ball hit the batsman on the pad. He called me through for a single. It was an easy single. It was also a single that was extremely low on my priority list. My partner was half-way up the pitch, I had to run. I now had to face the demon. I took a nervous middle-and-leg guard, and surveyed the potential gaps in the field, for the sake of convention if nothing else, and also for potential escape routes. I settled into my stance. The run-up began.

As the bowler’s long approach unfolded, like a lion sprinting towards a 2-for-1 offer in a zebra shop, I steeled myself to be brave, watch the ball, and trust my brand new pads, gloves and box to avoid life-threatening injuries. He passed the umpire, uncoiled like the eight-year-old Garner-Croft-Holding-Roberts hybrid he clearly was, and whanged it. I studiously played the perfect forward-defensive. The ball smashed into the stumps. I looked up to see a disapproving teacher looking at me as if I had just betrayed my team-mates, my school and my country. I looked at the stumps. Which were further away than I had remembered them being. I looked at my feet. They were just off the edge of the pitch, heading towards square leg. It transpired that what would today be called my “trigger movements” had let me down. And taken me a good four feet out of harm’s way. A technical glitch to be ironed out, certainly. My career average slumped to 0.50. I batted at eight in the next match.

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