January 23, 2011

The curse of premature momentum before the World Cup

And how teams are trying their best to avoid it

England’s flawless tour of Australia has continued impressively with two superbly constructed defeats in the opening two one-day internationals, confirming that the England management will leave nothing to chance in their pursuit of ultimate success.

The immaculate, all-encompassing preparation that helped secure the Ashes (where every detail, from sweatiness of fielders’ hands, via Alastair Cook’s four-year undercover operation as a middling Test opener, to injecting psychotropic substances into the Australian selectors’ breakfast sausages) is now being applied to the World Cup campaign. Strauss and his team, well aware that they could not sustain their Ashes form until April 2, have tactically dipped at just the right time. They will be looking to endure at least a 6-1 drubbing in the Commonwealth Bank series, before slowly finding their game again during the month-long group stage of the World Cup, then exploding into form for the crucial quarter-semi-final week at the end of March.

England proved their mastery of the well-timed Test match defeat in Leeds in 2009 and in Perth in December, brilliantly allowing Australia to believe that everything was just fine, that England’s brief and uncharacteristic dalliance with excellence was over, and that normal service had been thoroughly resumed. Then, with the Baggy Greens still high-fiving themselves in delight, they burst out of their tactical Trojan horse like the modern-day Odysseuses they are, and skewered Australia like a cheap kebab.

For their part, Australia will be delighted that, having underperformed with such determined persistence in the Ashes - or, as Cricket Australia has now officially rebranded them, “The Commonwealth Bank Series Official Six-Week Curtain-Raiser” - they are now proving that, at the business end of their international summer, they can still perform like the Australians of old. They too still have plenty of players nicely out of form two months away from the key games, as well as players in form who have not been selected for the World Cup, so whose inevitable drop-off will not affect the team as they push for a fourth consecutive trophy.

India and South Africa are also not quite bubbling under nicely. Both will be happy with not taking a decisive lead in the ODI series, and be hoping that rain in Centurion tomorrow removes the possibility of either of them winning. A notable victory against a strong opponent at this stage is likely to prove fatal for their World Cup hopes.

Both teams also took every available precaution to make sure they did not win the final Test of the three-match series recently concluded, avoiding the EPM (excessive premature momentum) that all coaches fear. (It was a disappointing end to a compelling series akin to Shakespeare writing Act V of Hamlet as a single scene in which Hamlet does a crossword, eats a packet of nachos, and twangs a ruler on his desk, or Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier concluding the Thriller In Manila by spending rounds 14 and 15 filling in their tax returns and phoning their accountants to check what they were allowed to claim as expenses.)

India’s glut of injuries also bodes very well for the tournament favourites. Those players should be in peak condition come March 23.

New Zealand’s win over Pakistan in Wellington (described as “worryingly comprehensive at this stage of our preparations” by Daniel Vettori) should not detract from their expertly crafted 11-match losing streak that preceded it, whilst their opponents know that, such is the fluctuating nature of their cricket, how they are playing now bears no relation to how they will play in late March (indeed, how they play in late March will have no impact on how they play five minutes later in March).

Sri Lanka and West Indies are no doubt practising half-heartedly to make sure they do not hit the ground running in their three-match ODI series beginning on January 31, whilst Bangladesh are keeping a low profile after whitewashing of New Zealand, desperately hoping they will not take that form into the early stages of the World Cup. All in all, the tournament is still anyone’s.

Meanwhile, the Chairman of Baggy Green Selectors, Andrew Hilditch has, after an investigation lasting two weeks, issued the Official Cricket Australia List Of Positives To Be Taken From The 2010-11 Ashes. It reads as follows:

1. Selectors seek consistency from their players. Many of the team provided us with admirably, almost unprecedentedly, consistent performance levels. The captain, as so often, led the way, churning out a series of scores that were so consistent as to be barely discernible from each other. He was ably supported in this by his vice-captain, whilst Ben Hilfenhaus set new standards for reliable, guaranteed consistency with the ball.

2. Sportsmen are never more determined than when they set out to “prove the critics wrong”. By garnering for themselves a record number of critics, Australia’s cricketers will be more motivated than ever, and will play for the next 25 years in an almost hypnotic trance of critic-disproving frenzy.

3. The pain of defeat in 2005 and 2009 was exacerbated by the the fact that had one ball happened differently in each series, the result would have been reversed. If Lee had slapped Harmison’s full toss either side of the fielder at Edgbaston in 2005, or if the umpire had given Kasprowicz not out to a marginal caught-behind appeal moments later, and if one of the 35 balls bowled to Panesar in Cardiff in 2009 had, as might reasonably have been expected, cleaned him up, then Australia would have triumphed gloriously. Life is too short for “what ifs”, so, by being obliterated by an innings in three Tests and conceding a record statistical superiority to England, the Australians will now be able to proceed happily with the rest of their lives, unencumbered by nightmares of the ones that got away.

4. Since the retirement of the irreplaceable Shane Warne in 2007, Australia have been trying to replace him, and find a spinner who is indispensably crucial to the side’s success. Over the course of the Ashes, Nathan Hauritz grew into that role.

5. The international game is short of star names. In this series, Australia created a new generation of potential world superstars – Cook, Trott, Bell, Anderson, Tremlett, Bresnan, to name but six.

6. Taking positives from abject defeat is long-established as a method of helping captains avoid breaking down in tears of humiliation at post-match interviews, no matter how spurious and desperate those supposed silver linings dully glistening around the mushroom cloud of defeat may be. Australia helped prove that taking negatives from victory is an equally valid procedure. As Ricky Ponting said in Perth, after leading his team to a thumping victory: “Well, obviously we’re delighted with the win, but let’s not forget we can still take a lot of negatives away from this victory. Our top-order batting was useless, we were bailed out by Hussey yet again, and there is absolutely no way he can do that for five Tests in a row, and only two of our bowlers took any wickets, one of whom blows notoriously hot and cold, the other of whom picks up injuries like Warren Beatty used to pick up women in his prime. So, all in all, whilst we cannot deny that we did win this game, there is still much to be downbeat and pessimistic about, and we’ll focus on that carrying that forward to Melbourne.”

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