Decade Review 2009

Missed chances and lost glories

For England, despite the Ashes successes, the overriding feeling as the 2000s drew to a close was one of a gnawing emptiness

Andrew Miller

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Marcus Trescothick and Kevin Pietersen on the England team parade after winning the Ashes, September 13, 2005
Going overboard: the reaction to the 2005 Ashes win marked the beginning of a period of skewed priorities and stunted ambition © Getty Images
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Players/Officials: Duncan Fletcher | Kevin Pietersen
Teams: England

On New Year's Eve 1999, England were officially the worst Test nation in the world. They attained that dubious honour by losing a home series to New Zealand in humiliating fashion, and underwrote the accuracy of the old Wisden rankings by slumping to 2 for 4 in their very next Test appearance, in Johannesburg, at the start of their millennium tour to South Africa.

In May and June 1999, England had been the reluctant hosts of what was then the longest World Cup in the event's 24-year history - a tournament from which they disappeared, amid a puff of rain-soaked firecrackers, in the very first round. There was no great surprise at the demise, and even less sorrow, because as the rest of the world has become tired of being told, only one version of cricket has ever really mattered to England. Even in that treasured format, however, they mustered a 10-year tally of 26 Test victories in 107 matches, including a grand total of five wins in 27 - spread across six dispiriting series - against the one foe whose scalp could have atoned for all other failings: Australia.

To suggest that life in the noughties "could only get better" would have been optimism of the most world-weary order. Even a plumb-line can only dip so low.

Sure enough, the team's fortunes have been comparatively stratospheric over the course of the past 10 years. Where once England were ninth out of nine in Test cricket, they now consider fifth out of 10 - their ranking at the start of the current tour of South Africa - to be an underachievement. Where once they went 18 years without ever looking like recapturing the Ashes, they've now managed the feat twice in three rubbers. And where once they struggled to locate a single iconic player to match the stature of Ian Botham in his pomp, they've since been able to boast two in the very same XI - Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen.

And yet, despite such tangible gains, the overriding feeling as the decade drew to a close was one of gnawing emptiness. In the decade of "plenty", England have made do with "some" - a state of affairs that would have proved more than sufficient as recently as 20 years ago, when the game was effectively still run as a relic of Empire, and when England accepted regular thrashings at the hands of her former colonies as proof of the country's enduring worth.

Such sentimental tosh has no place in the modern-day game, however. The "I" in ICC changed from Imperial to International way back in 1965, but it was as recently as 2005 that the game's governing body formally cut its umbilical link to the mother country by upping sticks from Lord's to a new purpose-built home in Dubai. Aside from the tax benefits, the main reason for that shift was to move closer to the undisputed giant of the global game, India, whose closest allies these days include those pragmatic politicians at Cricket Australia, upon whom England could once rely for unequivocal backing.

Those two countries, along with South Africa, have constituted the three most consistent teams of the decade, with the Muralitharan-inspired Sri Lankans continuing to punch above their natural weight. Half a sauntering step behind that quartet, England have spent the decade veering from inspired to insipid, often in the time it takes to change from white to coloured clothing. Though they go into the 2010s with a comparatively sturdy footing, it is sobering to consider that every single nation below them in the world rankings - Pakistan, West Indies, New Zealand, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe - is gripped by crises of greater significance than mere confidence.

It is galling, and frankly pretty alarming, that such a state of affairs could exist even in the decade in which England triumphed in arguably the greatest Test series of all time (and certainly the most storied). Under the inscrutable guidance of Duncan Fletcher, the first national coach to be handed the keys to the citadel, and aided and abetted by the timely advent of ECB central contracts, which instilled a professionalism both in England's elite cricketers and the immediate system within which they operated, England thrived for five of the finest years that any nation outside Australia and West Indies can ever have enjoyed.

But the culmination of that rise also turned out to be the watershed. As fate would have it, the 2005 Ashes was contested at the precise midpoint of the decade, and gave rise to the notion that England, then ranked No. 2 in the world after five years of steady, then spectacular, improvement, really could shoot for the moon and establish a dynasty to rival that of the Australians, which they were thought to have toppled.

 
 
In the decade of "plenty", England have made do with "some" - a state of affairs that would have proved more than sufficient as recently as 20 years ago, when the game was effectively still run as a relic of Empire, and when England accepted regular thrashings at the hands of her former colonies as proof of the country's enduring worth
 

Instead, at the critical moment a paralysis of ambition gripped the English game at every imaginable level - from the boardrooms of the ECB, where the most wanton crimes against progress continue to be committed; through the ranks of the elite players, who lost all propulsion around the time of their fateful parade through Trafalgar Square; and right down to the media and general public, whose glorification of future Ashes match-ups above all other contests was both a reflection and a projection of some seriously skewed priorities.

And in a spooky but inopportune coincidence, that 2005 summer also marked the end of free-to-air broadcasting in the United Kingdom, the net result of which has been a seepage of cricket's relevance in the country in which it was born. Although a recent review of the nation's "Crown Jewel" events proposed a return of Ashes contests to listed status, the die for future broadcasting rights has already been cast. Any move to return cricket whence it came would cause untold devastation to the sport's already precarious finances, not least because the ECB is too myopic to come up with an alternative source of income to fund its bloated and unsustainable structure.

Contrary to the myth that is conjured about the sanctity of Tests, the only thing that truly matters to the ECB is the survival of county cricket. Fifteen of the 18 teams that make up the current two-division structure contested the County Championship way back in the 19th Century, and those same teams, plus the MCC, still govern (and jealously guard) all the money generated by English cricket - or, more pertinently, the England cricket team, who pour roughly 60% of their yearly earnings straight into the empty coffers of "the confederacy of mediocrity", as Wisden Cricketers' Almanack was moved to describe the shires in 2002.

It's a one-way relationship of the most divisive kind. To fund such profligacy, England's elite players are forced to perform for 11 months every year, deprived as they are of the natural break that other major nations enjoy during the northern hemisphere summer. The summer of 2000 was the first to feature seven Tests, but it wasn't until 2009 that the "tradition" of starting the English international summer in May began to wear thin, when a dismal two-Test series against West Indies was played out against the backdrop of empty stands and with the glitz of the IPL wafting up from South Africa.

In the circumstances, it's little wonder if the ambitions of England's star players were sated after the glory of 2005. Burnout on the one hand, mingled with the trappings of unprecedented fame on the other - and too few players of sufficient calibre emerged to maintain the high standards that had been set. It is a sad irony that two of the best of the current England set-up, Pietersen and Jonathan Trott, owe most of their success to their lack of English upbringing.

But if a single miserable failure epitomises the missed opportunities that coloured England's decade, it is the ECB's cack-handed juggling of the hottest potato of the lot - the birth and exponential growth of Twenty20 cricket. It beggars belief how England allowed itself to be blindsided by a concept that was spawned - lest we forget - by an ECB marketing executive, Stuart Robertson, with the express intention of providing county cricket with a new means of sustaining itself. When the format made its debut in 2003, it achieved such stunning success that Surrey and Middlesex reported sellouts at Lord's and The Oval that harked back to the golden age of the 1950s.

But that, in a nutshell, was the problem. English cricket spent the 2000s looking back with nostalgic hankies at the ready, but never once dared to make eye contact with the future until it was right there, poking them in the pupils. Twenty20 cricket might never have taken off to the extent that it did had it not been for India's epochal triumph in the inaugural World Twenty20 in 2007, but by that stage England was already washing its hands off the monster it had created, for fear of the kerfuffle it could cause.

The final stretch: Duncan Fletcher conducts one of his last training sessions as England coach, Kensington Oval, Barbados, April 20, 2007
Duncan Fletcher's reign as coach was among the finest periods in England's cricket history © Getty Images
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The ECB's attitude amounted to a spineless abdication of opportunity, and even after Lalit Modi's whirlwind had blown through town to demonstrate what can be done when you're willing to countenance change, the board compounded its errors with a ream of catastrophic follow-ups. While Australia and South Africa saw the writing on the wall and joined forces with India to secure lucrative stakes in the nascent Champions League, England decided to go it alone, and Sir Allen Stanford - a man who made his fortune from rich and credulous investors - was ready and waiting to strip them of the last of their dignity.

Throughout the decade, the ECB's attitude was as reactionary as that of the organisations that had preceded it as the governing bodies of English cricket, the lamentable TCCB and the lampooned MCC - which, as it happened, overturned a 212-year tradition only nine months before the start of the millennium, when it finally deigned to admit its first women members. A decade on from that liberating decision, the MCC is arguably the most progressive body in the English game - an ardent advocate of pink balls and floodlit Test cricket, among other initiatives, and a partner of the IPL through the Spirit of Cricket campaign. But then again, the MCC can afford to be progressive. In the priceless bricks and mortar of Lord's, they possess a structure that is the envy of the entire cricket world. No other English asset is better placed to thrive in the new world order.

While overseas observers of a vindictive nature might suggest that England's horizons are thick with the sight of chickens coming home to roost, it is still frightening to think how precariously balanced the game's ancient traditions have become. Right now, Test cricket retains a significant place in the affections of several million fans across the globe, and nothing provided quite such a surge of optimism as the sight of Virender Sehwag pushing the old format's possibilities during his onslaught in Mumbai last month. But cricket's future belongs incontrovertibly to the pace and pulling power of Twenty20 cricket, and therein lies the root of England's anxieties.

Meanwhile, Team England ploughs along in spite of everything - delighting, infuriating and occasionally inspiring, but rarely threatening anything other than ephemeral glories. It took the fury of Nasser Hussain to shake the country out of the torpor he inherited in 1999; it required the grace of Michael Vaughan to make the good times look far easier than they actually were, and it took the doomed populism of Flintoff on the one hand, and the anti-populism of Pietersen on the other, to remind the powers that be that the "I's" that feature so prominently in both surnames cannot be adequate substitutes for the team ethic that was lost in the post-2005 fallout.

And, in a year, 2009, in which the Pietersen-Moores debacle exposed yet more faultlines within English cricket's cumbersome structure, it required the sanguine Andrew Strauss to make some sense of all the madness. He has led his team with the same imperturbable equilibrium with which he has contested his entire international career, forever ready to take the rough with the smooth, of which the last year alone threw up plenty. He gets England's flawed system perhaps better than any of his predecessors. In fact, maybe a future career as ECB chairman is already beckoning.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

© ESPN EMEA Ltd.

Comments: 27 
Posted by start_of_an_era on (January 8, 2010, 20:10 GMT)

Although an excellent summary of England's decade, I have to disagree with Andrew's claim that the overiding feeling now is a gnawing emptiness. The years 2000-2005 were the best I've experienced as an England supporter. The 2005 Ashes win was glorious but unfortunately, England did not know how to cope with the increased adulation and expectation that followed. The result? Four years of bad decisions and mistakes. However, in the last year, they have finally got the right men in place as coach and captain. I think Strauss is and will be a fantastic leader, and he has rightly seen last summer's 2009 Ashes victory as the first step of success, not the pinnacle. At the start of a new decade, I feel as optimistic as I ever have that England are heading in the right direction. Yes there have been mistakes, but the future is bright.

Posted by jackiethepen on (January 8, 2010, 17:14 GMT)

Gnawing emptiness? Andrew Miller must be suffering from SAD - depression caused by lack of sunlight in winter. The year ended on a wonderful victory in South Africa at Durban. This was the tough Series that was supposed to be even tougher than the Ashes according to the pundits like Miller. The Ashes that the team and the nation celebrated winning in August. Where was Andrew Miller? Perhaps it is time for him to take a break if he didn't find the five days at the Oval exhilarating like the rest of us. Since then Test Cricket has been nail bitingly exciting going down to the last ball! How it conspires to do that over five days is unbelievable. As for County cricket I've had a great season as a Durham supporter. What an atmosphere at the Club. Harmison on song! No fading away there. Cricket seems to be getting better as the ECB mandarins get worse. Now Belly is coming good! A joy to see a strokeplayer at the crease. And he can barnacle too! Come on Andrew, plenty to be cheerful about.

Posted by DreamsNeverDie on (January 8, 2010, 14:28 GMT)

I agree with you Mr. Miller. Simon_w,i take exception to your point that the tone is consistently mocking. It is not. It is a sharp article, and you might wonder why Andrew is being so sharp describing a team which has won the Ashes twice this decade, but the point is, despite the successes of the team, there are fundamental flaws in the system, problems which have not been addressed for far, far too long, opportunities have not been taken, the admistrators are inept and not keen to take opportunities and such. If you talk to the common English cricket fan, all they talk about are the Ashes triumph. 2 problems here...it hides the fact that they've been poor most of the decade and it also ignores their other triumphs in a bad way. No one talks about their series triumphs in Sri Lanka and Pakistan early on in the decade, and Andrew, by the same token, ice article but you could have elaborated a little more on those two successes, which kicked things off, to be honest. You missed that.

Posted by Natural_Outswing on (January 8, 2010, 7:54 GMT)

Andrew is right that the big problem for English cricket remains its domestic structure, although all English cricket is more professional than it used to be. The task remains to narrow the domestic professional game, and also to capitalise on the northern hemisphere summer by hosting a massive international 20/20 comp. England should also be at the frefront of modernising test cricket, which surely is getting a boost from the close matches between Pakistan and Australia and England and SA. Day-night, pink balls, deep bench test and 20/20 squads, rotation of players to manage workloads...bring it on. Whatever the frustrations of the past 10 years, the future could still be bright, and we've come a long way.

Posted by RSG476 on (January 8, 2010, 7:26 GMT)

I think that the record of England in the last decade can be summed by three of the most promising players one saw - Flintoff, Vaughn and Harmison. There was no doubting their talent. Yet at the end of the day, they achieved far less than what they perhaps should have. It is true that they suffered from various injuries and ill luck, but the bottom line is that if one has to benchmark their achievements against their talents, they have truly under-achieved. On a similar note, look at Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar. They seem to be following the same trend of uneven, on again, off again, performance (though Anderson has been far more consistent recently) that seems to underline the core issue with England. I do wish that Cricinfo, while recognizing the enormous talent Flintoff brought to the table, also recognizes that the end of the day, he did not perhaps achieve even 70% of his potential. The same holds true for the team as a whole

Posted by CustomKid on (January 8, 2010, 5:14 GMT)

Sir-Freddie sure 2005 was a good series but it was far from the greatest. As an Aussie supporter I'd say the 92-93 WI tour of Aus (2-1 WI), the 95 Aus tour of the WI (2-1 AUS) and 2001 Aus v's India (IND 2-1) were as good if not better than the 05 ashes and that only counting the 90's to 2000's. Prior to that there are far more epic battles throughout the games history. You rate it as it was your first ashes win in almost 20 years.

England were horrid in the 2000's with a few bright spots being in 2004 against SA away, 2005 Ashes @ home, and 2009 Ashes @ home. Outside of that they were bad and sometimes embarrising so.

While they appear to be on the rise now they're almost a fair weather team. Fair weather being cloudy, overcast, moisture in the air - then they fire. When there is no assistance they are horrid. Until they can rectify that with bowlers that can prize wickets out on tracks that resemble billiard tables they're not going to do anything remotley great moving forward.

Posted by simon_w on (January 8, 2010, 2:09 GMT)

Whilst I agree with most of the points made in the article, the overall tone is morose, sardonic and depressing, and I tend to agree with vatsap. Usual fare from Andrew Miller then. I am a die-hard cricket fan, and a die-hard England fan, and know that there is much to be bemoaned with the state of English cricket, and of cricket in general. Most of the recriminations are justifiable. It's just the mordant mocking tone that grates. One is left feeling that it is Andrew Miller who is filled with gnawing emptiness at an existential level, and that the state of English cricket simply the vehicle of its expression. //

Absolutely astonished by AusbornBrit's comment. I'm tempted to conclude it simply shows how diverse people's tastes can be, but the comment asking if Miller is Australian smacks either of someone who clearly doesn't read much of what he actually writes, or of a plant trying a little too hard...

Posted by Otautahi on (January 8, 2010, 0:48 GMT)

Andrew, if nothing else, England consistently prove that having enormous resources doesn't guarantee success. If England consistently 'punched well above it's weight' like New Zealand or Pakistan you would have had so much more success to write about. Good luck for your article for 2020.......will you again ignore the fact that England teams are carried by foreign born and trained players ???? I wonder.

Posted by stalefresh on (January 7, 2010, 21:17 GMT)

Whatever said and done, the only place in the world where I see stands full test match after test match is England. In 2005 the hysteria that surrounded the Ashes - even when England had not won it - was amazing. It was called 'the new football'. How many sports can claim that in England?

The point is that it is still a popular sport, and there must me something that ECB must be doing to atleast keep the interest alive in test cricket. Look at the state of Test Match Cricket in India - it is played in empty stadiums now. State of Cricket in WI - played in empty grounds. It could have been the same in England -then what?

Domestic cricket structure maybe a futile and financially loss making effort - but from my perspective (as an ordinary cricket fan), it produces Flintoff, Anderson, Broad, Strauss, Collingwood, Swann - these are fine test cricketors. Harmison at his best was the finest sight in cricket.

It is imp to know what UK lost,but very imp to appreciate what they gained

Posted by CricLook on (January 7, 2010, 19:40 GMT)

England indeed a good job in second half of this decade. They have one of the best england time in modern era. But I still believe England has little chance to win a major tournament or move to the top in either format of the game. 2005 Ashes fiercely contested, its true...But it cant be the greatest series...Problem is when ever England win a series...Its value dramatically increases. How many time australia triumphant..? Or can any English man produces the duel of Brian Lara n the assuies... They lac the professionalism, sharpness , anticipation that must be in a winning team for a sustainable period

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Andrew Miller Andrew Miller was saved from a life of drudgery in the City when his car caught fire on the way to an interview. He took this as a sign and fled to Pakistan where he witnessed England's historic victory in the twilight at Karachi (or thought he did, at any rate - it was too dark to tell). He then joined Wisden Online in 2001, and soon graduated from put-upon photocopier to a writer with a penchant for comment and cricket on the subcontinent. In addition to Pakistan, he has covered England tours in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, as well as the World Cup in the Caribbean in 2007
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