West Indies in England 2012 May 30, 2012

Boring, boring England

What's a sportswriter to do when they keep coasting along so efficiently and dully?

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