October 15, 2013

Little England on top

England's best sporting moments have mostly come when they have been cast in the role of the scrapping underdog. That has changed somewhat under Andy Flower, though not much

Today's England are not flamboyant like their 2005 colleagues but neither are they scarred by the distant past © Getty Images

A shanked corner, a defender's assist to the opposing striker, a goalkeeping fumble. Those three touches by Norwich set up Chelsea's second goal in a recent Premier League encounter between the two. Norwich had fought back lion-heartedly from 0-1 down to equalise a while earlier, but once on level terms, they seemed unsure and error-prone, failing to take advantage despite their illustrious opponents looking shell-shocked. Eventually, Chelsea scored with some sucker-punches and plucky Norwich went on to lose 1-3.

In many ways Norwich - the David versus Abramovich's Goliaths - played like the platonic ideal of English football: they were brave, full of effort and running, and dedicated to the cause. They gave blood and sweat, which are often seen as their own form of glory.

Jonathan Wilson's masterly book Inverting the Pyramid has a quote about how English sides are caught in an urge to "constantly recreate Dunkirk". Many football journalists refer to this impulse as the "Little England" mentality - a desire to view oneself as a small, brave team, battling the odds. To my mind, this is a hangover of the post-war period, when the narrative was of a country recovering from a decade of blitz and battering, even though a more accurate way of looking at it was as one of the mightiest empires in history being reduced to rubble. That transformation from a giant empire to a little island seems, in my hugely generalising mind, to work as an inhibition on the psyche of English teams. Often, particularly against good sides, they play valiantly when behind, but seem confused and docile when on top.

For me, this mentality applies in cricket and several other sports. But what makes this idea intriguing in the context of English cricket is that the mothership has enjoyed a proper golden era for the past decade, and the coaches who have served as the architects of this period are both men from a genuinely little country, Zimbabwe.

Duncan Fletcher was a member of the giant-killing Zimbabwe side that beat Australia in the 1983 World Cup. His England team were also set up to be giant killers, building up steam over several years as they awaited the final showdown with Australia. During this time, they conjured up several memorable wins, ending Pakistan's unbeaten streak at the National Stadium in Karachi, and winning series in the Caribbean and Sri Lanka.

Their 2005 Ashes win made them legends, but revisiting the series critically provides some valuable insights. Australia brutally swatted England aside in the first Test, and it was probably only Glenn McGrath's injury before the second Test that allowed England to play more confidently. Even then, after reaching victory's doorstep, they became frightfully nervous and almost allowed Australia to snatch the win. The fourth Test, which saw their decisive triumph, was similar, in how England almost self-destructed while chasing 129.

Fletcher's team unravelled almost immediately after conquering Everest. They lost their next series 2-0 to Pakistan, kept losing the core of their side to injuries, and eventually, in 2006-07, were handed the worst thrashing in an Ashes series.

After a brief period, England appointed a second Zimbabwean, Andy Flower, as their coach. Flower never has presided, and probably never will, over a series as memorable and exciting as the 2005 Ashes (to be fair, few ever can), but he has taken England to a position they have never been in before - of a team comfortable to be at the top.

Flower's Zimbabwe were also different from Fletcher's. A full-fledged Test-playing ICC member, they weren't plucky giant-killers but a gritty, tough-to-beat team. Political rather than sporting reasons were to do with the downfall of that side, but they managed to make their mark despite lacking resources.

Flower's England are similarly difficult to beat, and in creating this side - either by accident or design - he seems to have also undone the mental straitjackets that often seem to limit English sporting sides. Rather than bludgeoning their way like Australia did, or modern India occasionally do, Flower's side are terrifyingly efficient and unafraid of playing defensively.

In the most recent Ashes, Australia created more newsreel highlights and tweetable moments, but England won 3-0. Time and again, when they could have pummelled their opponents, they chose to grind it out. The victories came not in rushes but by the drip-by-drip certainty of Chinese water torture.

Flower's England team never really act as if they are on top. Even when ahead, they play like a side battling a mighty opponent. They never play like the Youtube-friendly 2005 side, and the odd Stuart Broad gold rush aside, they never go for the big flourish moments. They are never the bad guys on top, always the plucky warriors. This can be best seen by how often England stick to their defensive plans even when the other team is on the mat.

The results speak for themselves. Flower has won three Ashes, a No. 1 Test spot, and the one thing nobody thought England would ever win - a limited-overs international title. Not a single one of these wins evokes a memory capable of rivalling 2005, and even in themselves it is hard to pick moments a neutral fan will recall with pleasure.

Flower's brilliance lies not in his titles but in how he seems to have worked with, rather than around, England's mental frailties. Fletcher's sides were flamboyant but fragile, and their humiliations rivalled their triumphs almost equally.

Flower's men, in contrast, play like a little team even when they are not, which means that they are not as exciting as they could be. But it also means that they don't fall victim to the mental scars or insecurities of some complex, post-colonial national angst. They don't lose heroically, rather they win in a doughty, determined manner. They never roar and thump their chests, choosing instead to scowl and grimace until they reach victory. They don't get drunk at 10 Downing Street, but they have put down their name in history.

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here