April 2, 2014

Were England complacent?

Giles and Broad used the word to describe the team's performance in the World T20, but what it really describes is the attitude of their bosses

The ECB has stretched Stuart Broad to his limit with England's relentless schedule © Getty Images

Interviewed on television the other night, the novelist Julian Barnes discussed his self-confessed pedantry with regard to the use of language. He chose an interesting example of the kind of thing that riled him - the word "decimate". It has become an alternative to "massacre" when its original meaning refers to the Roman punishment of putting to death one in every ten soldiers in a captured army, something quite different.

Either definition applies quite well to England's cricketers after their defeat by Netherlands. (Which one shall we decimate, or at least drop, or no longer employ? Broad? Giles? Or perhaps just do away with the lot?) Yet no retired writer shoves a microphone under the nose of Barnes as he misses out the Booker - "And how do you feel now, Barnesy? Gutted? Was the book you entered this year really acceptable?" - a fate endured by Ashley Giles and Stuart Broad in Chittagong.

The word that they fell upon to describe England's loss was "complacent". Both seemed to feel it offered suitable amounts of contrition, that it went a little further than the usual robo-pronouncements required by the ECB media training manual, and it yet is an odd choice. For a start, it implies that England, thrashed 5-0 in the Ashes and now eliminated from a world tournament with a record reading W1 L3, actually had something to be complacent about. Is it really possible to be complacent after spending six months being beaten by almost everyone you play against?

It also contains within it a supposition that England were appearing in the famous "dead rubber" against Netherlands, a game for which no one can "get up", an exercise in futility that can only finish one way. And yet so were their opponents, who had been out of the competition for longer than England. Surely the root causes of complacency should be universal.

It's completely understandable that England's representatives want to utter a few stock phrases out of the side of their mouths and get the hell out. In the case of Broad, who is the only player to have clung on since the debacle began back in November and who was clearly being asked to play injured, he can be offered some latitude. He is a wholehearted and spirited cricketer, who, at 27, is showing dangerous signs of being asked to do too much. Tiredness could perhaps explain his other lapse, which was to mention Kevin Pietersen's absence as mitigation - an acknowledgement that is certainly not on the ECB list of official excuses.

Giles' predicament was different. He and we have been encouraged to think of the white-ball section of the winter as an extended job interview. Faced with a result that posed unanswerable questions about his candidacy, it was impossible not to feel a jot of sympathy as he apologised to all the "stakeholders" for the defeat. He is a man who is rapidly being swallowed by the machine he desires to run.

Complacency does not describe the England team's state and yet it is symptomatic of the organisation above it. The players have been flogged into the ground by an endless schedule and the cracks have appeared with alarming speed, but no one within the machine can express this in plain English, because it carries an implied criticism of their bosses. Instead they must reach for words that appear to hold the correct weight but don't actually mean anything, or at least don't contain the honesty that all reasonable fans would accept and welcome. Ultimately they are human beings, and describing their plight on a human level would only help. Sporting cliché pleases no one but the PR droids who have trained the cricketers to utter it.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here

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