December 25, 2013

Cook's Christmas wishlist

Is there any silver lining in the 3-0 loss? Likely not, but a valiant attempt will be made nevertheless

"Should have asked for a Johnson voodoo doll" Anthony Devlin / PA Wire / © PA Photos

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".

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