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England have at last managed to lose a cricket match, and a good thing too: it was getting monotonous. One catastrophic batting collapse is no cause for panic: Sri Lanka managed one in the summer's first Test, in Cardiff, back in May and everyone was suitably amused or embarrassed, but the world did not fall in for them. Similarly, I doubt that England are going to bat quite that badly on any kind of regular basis; there is no obvious reason to consider it as more than a blip.
Nevertheless, one might as well attempt to draw some wider lessons from the loss to West Indies.
First off, England's fielding continues to be high-class. There were a couple of fumbles and a couple of wild throws, so West Indies got half a dozen runs more than they should have, but generally speaking the ground fielding was sharp and the catching first-rate. That fielding was backing up some very satisfactory bowling by a correctly-selected bowling unit.
When Graeme Swann said that Swann the captain would not pick Swann the kid, he was incidentally confirming that it is still the skipper who makes the final decision on which ten allies are going to come out and play alongside him – and leaving James Anderson and Steven Finn on the bench while giving plenty of overs to Samit Patel, Scott Borthwick and Ravi Bopara showed an excellent appreciation of what was required on the Oval pitch on that day. I wonder whether Stuart Broad, the official captain, would have the same nous in either selection or on-field management of the attack.
The batting, though ….
Inexperience is perhaps a partial excuse. Ravi Bopara's 90 previous international caps were more than the rest of those selected primarily as batsmen had amassed together. When he failed, there was no-one with the experience of arresting a slide in the heightened atmosphere of representing the country at a packed ground – even if most of the young guns have done it in domestic games for sides in which their places are basically secure. There was a fair amount of experience lower down the order, though, not that it helped. When Tim Bresnan walked out, I thought that at least here was someone with the common sense to nurdle through at the required run-or-so-a-ball, but it only took him a couple of minutes to heave one unnecessarily down long-off's throat.
But inexperience is an inadequate excuse for being incapable.
Jos Buttler has not yet played an eye-catching innings in an international game, but I suspect it's only a matter of time: with Ben Stokes coming to the party on Sunday (even if he left early), all the other youngsters have proved that they are just as capable of hitting the ball several miles for England as for their counties. However, they also seem to be roughly as idiotic as some of the younger India players, holding to the ludicrous belief that if a delivery can't be hit over the boundary, it's not worth bothering with at all. Some of them will no doubt get chances to play limited-overs cricket for Engand in Asia over the next few months, mostly the 50-over variety where they will at least rub shoulders with senior players who know how to nurdle, from which one hopes they will learn.
But all of them, senior and junior, are less than expert at conjuring even the odd run, let alone boundaries, from balls which don't arrive at a decent pace and don't bounce to an inviting height.
The eventual returns of Kevin Pietersen and Eoin Morgan will improve matters slightly, but I reckon we England fans should watch the winter's ODIs through the tolerant eyes of the early adopters of technology. The first Blackberries or iPads didn't work all that well, but they were fun to get used to for those who didn't mind glitches and understood that they weren't going to get universal network coverage.
Turning to West Indies, they deserve great credit for doing what India couldn't in nine attempts this summer even though they face very similar problems with their own young batsmen, most of whom look even more clueless than the England boys.
But what will give them, and especially their coach, great heart is their superb outcricket, which gave England a very heavy dose of the medicine they have been dispensing themselves all summer: parsimonious bowling backed up by very sharp fielding. Darren Sammy's run out of Buttler was brilliant, but that was merely the star at the top of a bauble-festooned Christmas tree of fine fielding. The bowling was ideally suited to the conditions in terms of pace and length, and that England's top five were all bowled or lbw is eloquent testimony to its accuracy.
Pride, commitment and purpose when in the field is probably the most accurate barometer of a squad's morale and togetherness. That always comes from the leadership provided by the coach and, even more importantly, the captain: unless the players really want to play under them, there is no team – just eleven blokes turning up for something to do.
The turnaround in West Indies' fielding between the first and second games brought to mind the difference when England took the field for the third Test on their last tour of the Caribbean. It is now part of English cricket folklore that after the humiliating defeat in the first Test of that series Andrews Strauss and Flower, both very new in their respective roles, did an amazing job of getting their errant charges to think very seriously about how they were disrespecting the game, the country and themselves and what they were going to do about it.
Going on, Flower and Strauss had the advantage that they had a board and management structure which had been honed into supporting the international side as its top priority over a period of ten years, which is sadly not the case for Ottis Gibson and Darren Sammy. But the partnership they are developing looks to have the potential to do immense good. Let's hope they get to continue.
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