March 9, 2013

England's wet fortnight in Wales

And the reason why they are doing so badly in New Zealand

It seems that no sooner has a New Zealand cricketer put wine glass to lips than he is transformed into a walking casualty: punching doors, picking fights with pavements, or, in the case of Doug Bracewell, recreating that scene in Die Hard, when an angry man in a vest tries to tiptoe across a carpet of broken glass.

The latest cricketers to enter the confessional booth are Daniel Vettori and Jeetan Patel. Daniel pleaded guilty to a charge of "should have known better at his age" and Jeetan was forced to apologise in person to an innocent stretch of pavement outside the "Silly Spinner" nightclub. Fortunately, the pavement appears to be okay, apart from a minor dent, and the indignity that comes with having a Test cricketer sprawling all over you.

But those members of the New Zealand cricket collective who aren't incapacitated, undergoing rehab or suffering from post-nightclub embarrassment syndrome, are doing rather well at the business with the bat and the ball. After two days' cricket, England are chasing the game, though there's no immediate danger of their catching up with it.

On Thursday, confronted by some distressingly accurate seam bowling, the English batsmen seemed as disinclined to hang around on the field of play as Rory McIlroy with a toothache, and offered us an array of shots straight from the Herschelle Gibbs coaching manual, How To Lose Your Wicket Without Even Trying.

On Friday, they fell back on their never-successful strategy of intimidation. This comes in two phases. First, Finn (or it may be Anderson) terrifies his opponent by bowling the ball short and relatively quickly (but not all that quickly). Then, while he's waiting for the ball to be retrieved from the square-leg boundary, Anderson (or it may be Finn) lets fly with a devastating volley of mildly uncomplimentary remarks about the batsman's shoes.

This worked as well as it usually does, and 235 runs behind, England found themselves in need of emergency excuses. They can't blame their performance on foreign conditions. Their hosts have generously laid on howling gales and lashings of rain, lest the tourists feel homesick; although they have rather overdone the mountains, giving the tour a "wet fortnight in Wales" feel. But their hospitality can't be faulted.

Former amateur ballroom dancer Michael Vaughan blamed it on complacency. This is unfair. A team that has lost seven of its last 15 Tests must surely be immune to complacency. And how exactly did he diagnose this complacency? Did they take to the field wearing Bermuda shorts? Was Ian Bell reading a comic at first slip?

Dr Vaughan's disgruntlement might have been down to the fact that having spent much of his pre-Test Twitter time taunting Australian fans (this is, however much you want to forget it, a double-Ashes year) England's iffy performance made him look well, slightly complacent.

But if we put aside all the waffle about complacency, lack of preparation, inauspicious horoscopes, global warming, or Stuart Broad's misaligned chakras, there is a simpler explanation for proceedings in Dunedin. New Zealand are playing better. Ergo, at the moment, they are the better team. This seems a far better approach than deciding beforehand which team is better, then trying to work out why they aren't winning.

Andrew Hughes is a writer currently based in England