December 25, 2013

Cook's Christmas wishlist

Andy Zaltzman
"Should have asked for a Johnson voodoo doll"  © PA Photos
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Happy Christmas, Confectionery Stallers. If Christmas is your bag. If not, happy late December, I hope Santa gives you as wide a berth as he seems to have given the England cricket team so far in their not-even-slightly-festive season. I imagine that when Alastair Cook packed his Christmas stocking in his suitcase a couple of months ago, he would have assumed that he would wake on Christmas morning - his own birthday also, although even Jesus might have struggled to finesse a series draw from England's current position - and find it packed with the usual goodies, from cricket gloves to farming equipment, from satsumas and chocolate coins to Fill In Your Own Statistical Milestones sticker books.

Instead, he will have woken in Melbourne desperately hoping that his stocking contained some, or preferably all, of the following: a new spinner (preferably one of the expensive ones that can also bat, field and crack the odd gag); an in-form wicketkeeper; some footwork; a genuine fully operational Len Hutton; some t-shirts for his top-order batsmen, emblazoned with the slogan "I will not get out playing a stupid shot at the first available opportunity"; a coin that works for the MCG toss, some replacement batteries suitable for use in a struggling swing bowler; and a signed affidavit from Australia's bowlers promising not to bowl him unplayable jaffas at the top of his off stump for the rest of the series.

These are troubling, fascinating times for the England cricket team. For a long time you could predict what the likely line-up of the Test XI would be a couple of years in advance. In fact, of the team that played the final Test before Andy Flower took over as head coach - the Mohali Test of December 2008 - seven were playing in Perth (Cook, Bell, Pietersen, Prior, Broad, Swann and Anderson, all almost ever-present during the Flower years), and an eighth (Panesar) played in Adelaide.

Now, after Australia's Samsonesque demolition of the pillars of the England team, it is in a state of flux, much as it was between every single match in the late 1980s, when the England selectors seems to be on a crazed mission to produce enough former Test cricketers to form a new political party and win a parliamentary majority within two elections.

England have had three major failures in the last two years - against Pakistan, South Africa and now Australia - and avoided a fourth, in New Zealand, largely due to some rogue physics operating on Matt Prior's stumps en route to his match-saving hundred in Auckland. Cook is their highest-averaging regular batsman in that time, at 40.9, and even he has only had one good series out of the nine played in that time. With the ball, only Broad is averaging under 30 since January 2012.

Before that Pakistan series, England had three of the top four bowlers in the world rankings, and four of the top ten batsmen (including two of the top three). At the start of last summer's Ashes, they still had Cook, Trott, Swann, Anderson and Broad in the top tens. Now Broad - currently ninth in the Test bowling rankings - is England's only top-ten representative with either bat or ball.

This team needs renewal. Ideally not the kind of 20-year process of unending and often gratuitous renewal that seemed to happen in the 1980s and 1990s, but renewal nonetheless. Hopefully, if Santa is kind to Cook, beginning at the MCG, with another entry in the impressive catalogue of Pointless England Consolation Victories In Dead Ashes Test Matches.

* Just a short blog this week, as I need to stake out my garden to see if I can catch a reindeer, or at least hurl abuse at them and their irresponsible owner after they befouled my lawn last year after gorging on carrots and mince pies. I will address the captivating simultaneous snatching of a draw from the jaws of victory and the gullet of defeat by both South Africa and India in next week's Confectionery Stall. Suffice to say, it was a brilliant Test match that has set the stage for a truly unforgettable Test series. Unfortunately, that stage will be instantly dismantled after the second Test in Durban. Congratulations to all those responsible for this travesty. I hope you enjoyed your petty power games. They must have been fun. Please pop an apology note in the post when you have time, addressed to "Cricket In General, c/o The World".

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

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Posted by Catchthebail on (December 26, 2013, 5:20 GMT)

Surely epsn can get some one better than this guy. Not insightful, not funny. What is going on? Reading this was a waste of my life.

Posted by Greatest_Game on (December 26, 2013, 4:37 GMT)

A great postscript. The entity one may not criticise in conversations herein (hint - 2 Cs, one B, one I) managed to invite heaps of derision, distain, distrust and disgust as it flayed the facade of equality amongst cricket playing nations and rendered even more moot the ICC, a wholly owned subsidiary. It also made a very big cricket loving country the ignominious villain of a Punch & Judy show, and squandered all respect said big country's team had earned. However, journalists managed to skillfully avoid the facts of the matter, and instead repeated ad nauseam the entity's fictitious protestations of righteous indignation over a tour schedule. As you address the matches & series, it would be appreciated, and a first, to see a writer address the subject with the intention of not allowing the truth to be inconvenient!

Posted by   on (December 25, 2013, 22:33 GMT)

Nice call Andy. England's FC structure is not strong enough these days. Too many cheap youngsters filling spots in teams. I've followed Worcestershire for almost 40 years but recently I've have no idea who is going to turn out from match to match - the criteria seems only to be "the cheapest players on the market"

Silly rules which promote the idea of getting rid of mature talent and introducing cheap "hopefuls" - most of whom fail. This isn't the young payers fault. Most hopefuls always have failed in every sport, but now that means sides fielding 8 players who will never cut it at the same time. Playing other sides who have adopted the same selection criteria resulting in weak cricket.

County Championship without the class overseas players and seasoned pros is a very weak affair and without fixing this England are likely stuffed for the long term.

Central Contracts were great, but the detachment the England team have built up since they were first introduced is not healthy either

Posted by Sigismund on (December 25, 2013, 21:03 GMT)

Thanks for the Xmas gift, Andy. I have been wondering for a while just how poor England batsmen's averages are over the past two years; looks like only one of them has scraped 40 - worse than I suspected. The two preceding years have been masking very much feebleness indeed of late. Do you have the full list?

Posted by   on (December 25, 2013, 20:15 GMT)

Good to see someone recognising that this series isn't a shock one-off; England fell away two years ago and have managed to produce some decent results due to a selection of individual performances whereas the previous two years had been collectively great. It bothers me that this is being put down tiredness or even being scared of the Australians. Personally, I think it's down to motivation. Not so much that they are unmotivated now, but that they were exceptionally motivated to get to number 1, to win an away Ashes series and back to back Ashes. It's notable that the one series where they have done exceptionally well was the India tour, where they had something exceptional to achieve. The only thing this team hasn't done is beat South Africa, and they're unlikely to get another chance.

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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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