May 30, 2012

West Indies in England 2012

Boring, boring England

Andy Zaltzman
Andrew Strauss celebrates a successful review against Kemar Roach, England v West Indies, 2nd Test, Trent Bridge, 4th day, May 28, 2012
England: nowhere near the glory days of the 1980s  © PA Photos
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Another home Test, another thumping victory for England, another surgical cauterisation of a visiting top order hopelessly ill-equipped and under-trained for the challenge of facing a remorseless, varied, high-class bowling attack. Another Test in which West Indies played well in patches, but against opponents with superior batsmen, bowlers, fielders, experience, facilities, funding, organisation, depth of talent, technology and any other facet of the sport you can imagine on and off pitch, they also played badly in patches, and were duly hammered. Another Test in which almost nothing was learnt.

One of the problems with the current England side is that, in their home series at least, they give journalists so little to write about. Long gone are the days when five or six places in the Test team were constantly up for discussion, and when you imagined the selectors sitting in a secret vault at Lord's, literally sharpening their swords, whilst a grainy television showed a replay of Malcolm Marshall bowling an unplayable 90mph outswinger to a county journeyman speculatively catapulted into the Test team, whilst muttering: "Hutton would have hit that for four. Let's try someone else. Pass me the county scorecards from the Times, my blowpipe, my lucky dart, and my blindfold made from Gubby Allen's jockstrap, and let's see who we come up with for Headingley."

Nowadays there are meagre scraps to feed on when reporting on England's home Tests, and some of those scraps turn out to be mirages, hallucinated by copy-famished writers. "Strauss under pressure as captain" ‒ he had lost one series in ten and had put in some below-average, but not disastrous, batting performances. "Bresnan's place under the microscope" ‒ he had bowled only adequately in one match, and some people seemed to have either forgotten his return of 29 wickets at 18 in his previous six Tests, or regarded it as a fluke, or decided it was not as good as *Sydney Barnes would have managed, and therefore open to criticism.

Now Bairstow needs to refine his game in country cricket because he struggled with a blistering throat ball from Roach when new at the crease, then played some more short balls quite well before getting out a bit oddly. Given that ten of the starting XI are basically inked in for the rest of the summer, assuming they maintain fitness and resist the temptation to ride a jetski down the Thames during the Queen's jubilee flotilla and moon at the monarch, it is inevitable that Bairstow will receive considerable critical attention.

He might come good, he might not. He is 22, young for an England batsman - since Gower and Botham made stellar starts to their careers in their early 20s, only Cook and, to a lesser extent, Atherton, have had significant success under the age of 24.

The only way that any speculation about the bowling line-up can be engendered is by discussing whether the first-choice men need resting from their only Test match for the next seven weeks. Perhaps they need the full seven-week break from the five-day game, rather than just the five weeks they will have if they do play in the third Test. They will not want to rest. Particularly if Barath, Powell and Edwards are still the West Indian top three.

Compare this with the situation a couple of decades ago. Then, the cricket itself often seemed on the undercard to the incomprehensible game of selectorial rodeo poker that went on between the Tests. Graeme Hick seemed to have overcome his painful early struggles in Test cricket when he made his maiden hundred in India in 1992-93 ‒ a superb 178 after coming in at 58 for 4 in Bombay. He was dropped three Tests later, after the disastrous second-Test thrashing in the 1993 Ashes, in which he scored a respectable 20 and 64. He had scored a century and three 60s, and averaged 52, in his previous five Tests. All of which England had lost. It must have been his fault. How the selectors must have giggled.

Hick was recalled for the sixth Test, scored a brilliant 80 in a surprise victory, and proceeded to average in the high-40s for the next couple of years, against a series of top-quality bowling attacks, before everything went bafflingly pear-shaped again. Perhaps he had stumbled into that secret Lord's vault in the 1993 Test, and never shook the uneasy feeling that the England selectors' preferred method of keeping their players on their toes was to intermittently fire a pistol at their feet. Perhaps not. It is certainly true that Hick, Ramprakash and Crawley, England's three greatest unfulfilled talents of the 1990s, were all crassly handled at various formative times of their careers, and if Cook and Bell had been playing in the 1980s or 1990s, they would each have been dropped about ten times by the current stage of their careers. As it is, England largely stuck with them through some relatively mediocre times, and have been rewarded by them eventually maturing into insatiable run machines (give or take the odd jaunt to the subcontinent).

Another victim of the random almost Soviet-style justice dispensed by the England selectors in the early-to-mid 1990s was Graham Thorpe. He replaced Hick for the third Test in 1993, scored a debut century, then 37 and 60 in his third Test - against Hughes, Warne, May et al ‒ before, following a difficult start in the West Indies early in 1994, he scored a couple of outstanding 80s against a tidy pace attack of Ambrose, Walsh and two Benjamins. He had come through his early examinations with merit. And was promptly presented with a certificate telling him that he had failed. Next up: a limited New Zealand, at home. Thorpe was dropped. (And please bear in mind that, compared with large swathes of the 1980s, the selectors had calmed down considerably.)

It must have been an awesome time to be an English cricket scribe. You could champion a county player in the confident knowledge that he would probably at least be discussed as an England possible; you could question an incumbent, knowing that one below-par match was enough to get the selectors reaching for their bolt-gun of mercy. You must have felt like a Greek god, toying with human chess pieces.

But now - nothing. Central contracts, sound management, persistent collective and individual success have rendered the job of the press-box scribbler rather grey in these mostly disappointing early-summer series. How many different ways are there to write "He played another good innings", or "He bowled well again", or "The opposition were not at their best"?

England's struggles in the winter made for fascinating viewing, but this series was never likely to reveal anything new about England. They are very good in home conditions, and were always likely to win against a team that basically never wins Test matches, has two tails (one at the front and one at the back), a limited bowling attack, and minimal experience of playing in England. West Indies have played better than expected/feared at times, but still lost both Tests comfortably, just as expected/feared.

On their last four tours of England, they have now lost 11 of 12 Tests (and in the other, rain washed out the last day after England had declared twice in the match), and nine of those defeats have been by at least seven wickets or 200 runs. Even when West Indies had England in a degree of discomfort, as at Lord's on the final day, there was always the feeling that they lacked the depth in bowling to overcome England's depth in batting, and they gave up any hope of victory some time before the end.

There has been some grumbling about the West Indian top order lacking the application to play long innings. What they lack is the technique, know-how and experience. They are not going to acquire those attributes in the space of a couple of weeks. You would not expect a kid who is quite good at flying kites to be able to jump into a fighter jet and instantly become an ace combat pilot. Unless you were an England cricket selector in 1989.

● Despite the lack of uncertainty of outcome that sport needs to be truly compelling, there has been some good cricket in the two Tests, the highlight of which has been the batting of Marlon Samuels. He has played with such poise and authority that he has rapidly elevated himself into the realms of the great underachievers of Test history. Just as the highlight of last summer's objectively disappointing England-India series was Dravid's lone battle with an all-conquering attack, so Samuels' old-school cocktail of dogged resistance and classical strokeplay has been the most interesting facet of this current series.

Dravid, an established modern legend and one of the great technicians of all time with a stellar record in England, could have been expected to shine. Samuels, who made his debut as 19-year-old in 2000, and before this series had played in 37 of West Indies' 115 Test matches since then, scoring two centuries (one in 2002 and one in 2008) and averaging in the high 20s, could have been expected to fold like an origami flamingo in a similar manner to his colleagues. Instead, he has batted like a master. If he had played some of his off-side shots 500 years ago, he'd have had Michelangelo and da Vinci queuing up to paint him.

Samuels apparently turned down half of his lucrative IPL contract in order to join this tour. So he has in effect paid hundreds of thousands of pounds for the privilege of playing Test cricket. Good on him. And, judging by the way he has batted, he likes to get his money's worth. Perhaps the WICB should auction off the top three spots in their batting order to the highest bidder. If you have paid top dollar to have a bat, you are going to want to make it last.

(More on Marvellous Marlon in my next blog, later this week.)

03:14:27 GMT, May 31, 2012: *Sidney Barnes changed to Sydney

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

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Posted by Victoria on (June 28, 2012, 11:02 GMT)

Good for you!I went to England a couple of times duirng my 1970s in Europe . One was a 2-week? tour by bus or as the British say by coach from London to Cullode Field and back. Up the western side and down the eastern. It was wonderful though I found each stop too short and was almost inevitably the last to get back on the bus.I especially loved Scotland. My mother spent 6 months in Scotland in 1936, living with different families and learning English. One of her favorite faux-pas was saying I've got a pickle on my nose . The boys in the family there rolled in their seats with laughter. Pickel in German means pimple . So they gave her this to read It's a bricht moolicht nicht tonicht certain that she'd fumble with that one as all the Enlish inevitably did. But she read it faultlessly. They were stunned. The ch sound in Scottish is the same as in German.Then I went 2 or 3 more times to London and area, the last time on my way home from Germany back to Canada. My favorite memory of that trip was the window displays in one of the big department stores, Selfridge's. They used the fairy flower theme by Cecily Mary Barker. That was the first book that my mother gave me after we came to Canada. She found it at Goodwill or someplace like that. Of course it contained only a few of them. Much later I tried to get the whole series. I find them absolutely charming. They also did plates of them in the 1980s duirng the plate craze.

Posted by Tyagi on (June 13, 2012, 7:49 GMT)

u r gonna see england at their worst in nov...in INDIA..flop england.

Posted by Vilander on (May 31, 2012, 23:10 GMT)

come November, its time to play in India.... oh we gonna give you a lot of grief.

Posted by Tendulkar_forever on (May 31, 2012, 10:12 GMT)

What abt 3-0 drubbing! I think Andy intriguing Ajmal's ghost!

Posted by Anil on (May 31, 2012, 3:16 GMT)

Thanks Andy, for the "usually" great article. I, however, am getting somewhat superstitious. The accolades that are flowing toward Marlon seem eerie to me. Can you please delay your planned blog on him--at least until after the third Test is done? I want the poor man to enjoy the English sun to the fullest. I fear that there is some truth about jinxes.

Posted by Mustafa on (May 30, 2012, 20:29 GMT)

May I suggest a visit to UAE, that should spice things up, or spice down, depending upon who you support.

Posted by hah on (May 30, 2012, 20:24 GMT)

haha... forgot Pakistan so quickly! Even though this is not about away tests, a 3-0 brownwash just a year ago should've given the journalists plenty to write about!

Posted by Nadeem Sharifuddin on (May 30, 2012, 18:30 GMT)

I don't believe that england team standards have improved in last 5 years, they are playing the same way they were in 90s but their opponents are playing so bad in test cricket that i believe soon test cricket will die. England fast bowlers have average of 30 which is at par. Not even great. Not even unbelievable. Endland batting average is 45 which is again not great but at par. After the decline of mighty australians test cricket is dead now. England is not good, infect other teams are bad now. Very bad infect.

Posted by prasanna on (May 30, 2012, 15:50 GMT)

keep this article safely with you ... you may write a exact opposite theme of this in November.. yea of course its India vs Eng.. :P

Posted by keith on (May 30, 2012, 14:21 GMT)

Enjoy it while you can.We(W I) did it for 15 years and enjoyed it.Look where we are now.It wont last forever.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andy Zaltzman
Andy Zaltzman was born in obscurity in 1974. He has been a sporadically-acclaimed stand-up comedian since 1999, and has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4. He is currently one half of TimesOnline's hit satirical podcast The Bugle, alongside John Oliver. Zaltzman's love of cricket outshone his aptitude for the game by a humiliating margin. He once scored 6 in 75 minutes in an Under-15 match, and failed to hit a six between the ages of 9 and 23. He would have been ideally suited to Tests, had not a congenital defect left him unable to play the game to anything above genuine village standard. He writes the Confectionery Stall blog on Cricinfo.

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