July 28, 2014

Have England lost their new-found identity?

Cook and his boys seem to have fallen out of touch with the relentlessness that took them to No. 1

Has Bell gone back to being a pretty strokeplayer who gives his wicket away? © Getty Images

Germany's equaliser against Ghana in the FIFA World Cup was probably the ugliest goal they scored in the tournament. Yet it was also the most revealing. A corner, flicked on by Benedikt Höwedes, the giant centre-back, was turned in by Miroslav Klose, the goal-scoring No. 9. There was nothing remarkable about it. Such a goal was once considered stereotypical of the "efficient Germans". A couple of weeks later a report suggested how Joachim Loew had finally relented to pressure and started practising set pieces again, after years of openly dismissing their importance. Germany had their identity again. And they won the World Cup with it.

To talk about identity in sport might seem outlandish. Yet Germany returned to winning ways because they started doing again what they had ignored, and what had once made them famous. They won because, in the words of every single B grade Hollywood movie about growing up, they realised who they were.

They are no isolated case either. In cricket, Australia's rise from the ashes could be linked to their return to "Australianism". The talk of trying to turn a generation of Shane Watsons into David Boons was mocked by many, including yours truly, yet their success over the last ten months has come from handlebar 'taches, bowling fast, batting hard, and threatening tailenders' arms. Basically Australianism.

Identity is why at the same time as Peter Oborne argues for Misbah-ul-Haq being Pakistan's greatest captain, a vast number of Misbah's countrymen ask for his removal. In his case the identity doesn't even have to be accurate, it just has to be about the perception of that identity.

And all of this is why the current Indian team's tour to England is so weird to watch. India have struggled through an ever-changing identity over the past three years, and seem to be where they were in the late '90s - dominant at home through their spinners and a growing generation of batting superstars, and just looking to compete away from home. The Lord's Test win was their first ne away in nearly 40 months. They are slowly beginning to understand what their identity is, and this might well be the start of something bigger.

Meanwhile England, quite simply, don't have an identity.

They had to choose between Pietersen and Cook. On the one hand was the man who is the perfect representation of this modern English identity. On the other was someone whose whole persona is a rejection of it

After years of doomed romanticism towards their teams, the English finally seem to have found an identity to succeed with, regardless of the sport, over the course of the last decade or so. They are efficient, unentertaining and scientific. They are Germans, without ever admitting to be. Their rugby team, which did the unthinkable - winning the World Cup - is the template on which the rest have based their success. In the words of that team's coach, Clive Woodward, "Winning the rugby World Cup was not about doing one thing 100% better, but about doing 100 things 1% better." They minimised their mistakes, forced the smallest of advantages, and scored like it was a chore that had to be done rather than a joyful expression that had purists purring. Their success in cycling and club football could easily have been derived from those ideals.

That, in essence, was what Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss did too. Jarrod Kimber described it as being similar to a show dance at a major awards ceremony: "… every single person knew their role. The moves had been well practised beforehand. It was entertaining without ever being fun... It was safe, calculated and effective."

Thus England reached the top of the cricket tree and did more than any English team had done for half a century.

And then they hit a crossroads. They had to choose between Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook. It wasn't merely a choice between the maverick and the company man, the South African and the Essex boy, but a question of identity. On the one hand was the man who is the perfect representation of the modern English sporting identity. On the other was someone whose whole persona is a rejection of it. And they chose to go with the former. Except, what happens if your whole discourse is about winning and sacrificing everything else in its wake, and then you stop winning? The ECB may have gone with the win-and-nothing-else philosophy of Cook, but quite obviously they failed to tell their players about it.

To see the English team now is to see a group of men unsure of who they are. This, remember, is a team that defined itself on its refusal to buckle, on the relentlessness with which it refused to make a mistake. For it to give seven wickets to Ishant Sharma, that's a bit special. The three wickets in the middle in particular, which lost England the Test, were borderline hilarious. Pulling short balls straight into the hands of fielders is the sort of thing that brings opprobrium and questions about courage if it is done by an Asian batsman overseas. To see it being done by the English, off an Indian pacer of all things, was irony writ large. England, the team that minimised mistakes, was chopping its foot off and then shooting it to smithereens.

England have been playing as if they have just remembered who they were in the '90s. Ian Bell is back to being a pretty strokeplayer who gives his wickets away, Matt Prior is no longer safe either side of the stumps. Anderson never was a Steyn. And three pillars of the Flower era are gone. Just when the young crop was to be inducted and shown how success is achieved, the senior players started playing like the Flower era never happened.

In the midst of all of this is the malfunctioning automaton himself, Cook. The last time England played India, Cook was being touted as a potential all-time great, a batsman and a captain who could surpass nearly all that came before him in an England shirt. Oh how the mighty have fallen. And you fear the fall might not be over just yet.

Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here