England produce the perfect capitulation
What gracious, accommodating, spare-no-blushes hosts England have turned out to be. What a sensational tournament they have just set in motion. Forget the IPL, with its glitz and gaudiness, and beyond-the-boundary's-edge entertainment. All England could do to rescue an evening as dank as their dressing-room was provide a cricketing contest that required no hyperbole. That's exactly what they came up with, conjuring up a humiliation that might even bump Gordon Brown's own meltdown off the front pages of the morning papers. England are dead in the drizzle. Their tournament, however, is soaring through the clouds.
How the game needed a night like this. A perfect capitulation from a host team that, in the accidental admission of the captain Paul Collingwood, took a punt with its selection and fielded a weakened team in anticipation of "a big year ahead of us". What an absurd approach. Not even the prospect of hosting a World Cup - a World Cup! - could shake England out of their arrogant assumption that there's only one contest that counts this summer. Bring on the Ashes? Not on this evidence. Keep them as far away from this contaminated attitude as possible.
The most damning statistic on a sorry evening for the hosts was the sixes count - the most basic indicator of 20-over competence. The Dutch cleared the ropes on four glorious occasions - the pinch-hitting Darron Reekers managed it twice in the first three overs alone - as they followed the orders of their captain, Jeroen Smits, to go down swinging and see what they could do. "I'd rather be 80 all out than 130 for 5," he declared, an attitude that transcended the gulf in status between the sides. The margin of Netherlands' victory was far, far greater than that scampered final run. Victory went to the team that wanted it most, and England, shamefully, barely seemed to want it at all.
"It's pretty hard to take, you call them sides the minnow sides, but today they've thoroughly deserved their victory," said Collingwood. "When you get 160-odd on the board you think you've got enough, but they played with plenty freedom and belief, and they ran better than us between the wickets. The boys are devastated in the dressing-room, but we've got to bounce back, and play a hell of a lot better on Sunday."
Ah yes, Sunday - the real start to England's campaign. Pakistan are the opponents, a daunting team at the best of times, but England may not even get the opportunity to put this debacle behind them. The forecast for the weekend is nigh on apocalyptic, and a wash-out would mean their sorriest World Cup exit yet - yes, worse even than 1999, when they did at least manage to get their opening ceremony underway. But that looming rain-band is all the more reason to question the bewildering complacency England showed in selection, with their two cockiest performers, Kevin Pietersen and Graeme Swann, left on the sidelines to nurse injuries that surely would not have prevented them playing at, say, Cardiff on July 8.
Pietersen's absence was the most unforgivable decision, and when quizzed about his fitness, Collingwood's flustered response spoke volumes. "He woke up this morning very, very sore. It was a surprise to him, and more of a surprise to the rest of us, to be honest. We hope he'll be fit for Sunday, but we're obviously not going to take any major risks, simple as that. He's involved in a big year ahead of us, but this is a must-win game on Sunday, and if he's fit he's playing."
So which is it, Paul? Does Pietersen play through the pain to rescue a World Cup campaign, or does he sit on the sidelines and nurse that Achilles until the Ashes? Even in their hour of desperation, this team cannot bring itself to focus on the present. Too many non-events against a supine West Indies side allowed them to believe they were over the traumas of the past year. And yet, the first side they played this summer who really wanted to beat them was Scotland at Trent Bridge on Wednesday, and - had it not been for Pietersen's soothing half-century - that is almost certainly what Scotland would have done.
If the Dutch took heart from that effort, tonight they added extra soul to create a simple but effective cocktail that left England punch-drunk. "Tonight's performance has surprised a lot of us," said Collingwood. "I thought they were well planned, they stuck to their strengths, and their batting did surprise us. Every time we got a wicket we thought, right, we're on top of them here, but every batsman seemed to score boundaries from ball one. That kind of freedom doesn't come easy. All the players went out and played with that kind of belief, and put us right on the back foot."
Are you serious, Paul? What on earth did England think would happen? Did they honestly believe the Dutch would rock up to what is effectively their home World Cup, and do nothing more than go through the motions? No, there's only one side in the world who would be that deluded. England projected their own misguided prejudices onto their opponents, and found a reflection that was nothing like their preconceptions.
"We played brave cricket tonight," said the Man of the Match, Tom de Grooth, unwittingly echoing Collingwood's pre-series declaration, but doing so in a voice that carried the strength of his convictions. His captain, meanwhile, remained cheekily grounded in his assessment. "I think we played okay," said Smits. "Batting-wise we played up to our capabilities 99%, but in fielding and bowling, there's still room for improvement. We played okay and we're looking forward to our next opposition, that is Pakistan."
England are unlikely to be looking forward to Pakistan with quite the same relish. All their thoughts have turned to sackcloth (and Ashes), and Collingwood, one senses, cannot offload his captaincy burden quickly enough. He was handed the job reluctantly when Andrew Strauss decided to distance himself from this campaign, in what seems in hindsight to have been the shrewdest dereliction of duty imaginable. His orders at the handover would have been simple - maintain our momentum if you can, but at least return my team with some shred of its dignity remaining.
Whoops. Strauss may not be able to lift the ball in the air without picking out long-on, but at least he has a grasp of basic tactics, and can maintain a diplomatic straight face when events go against his men. Sadly for Collingwood, a decent man but a hopeless leader, he has fallen short in every regard. As lugubrious in the build-up as Mike Atherton in his Captain Grumpy heyday, his failure both on and off the field tonight was absolute.
Collingwood's worst decision by far was his reliance on Adil Rashid in those decisive middle overs. Who better to turn to in a crisis than a debutant legspinner, in the rain, with short boundaries? It wasn't that Rashid bowled badly - he did alright in the circumstances, leaking his runs at nine an over. It was that he was bowling at all.
"We were taking a bit of a gamble with Adil today," said Collingwood. "He's not played a lot but we thought that exposure would do him the world of good. Graeme Swann, he knows what he's all about with his offspin and the experience he brings, but a legspinner in Twenty20 cricket is certainly a wicket-taker. I guess we took a bit of a punt on Adil, he bowled exceptionally the other night, and he's certainly a player for the future. Why not put him into a game like this?"
As soon as he said this, Collingwood tried to cram the words back into his mouth, but it was no good, his foot was already wedged firmly in place. "I probably used the wrong word there, if I could take that back I would," he said. "We all know what Adil can do, we've seen what he does in training and he's shown what he can do. We took a gamble on his experience, not on the skills he can produce."
So it's official. This tournament, a global tournament, a direct descendant of the same World Cup that England have failed to win even once in its 34-year history, is nothing more than a knockabout to fill in time and ascertain form before the Ashes begin. Somebody save us from this monstrous delusion. The world is moving forward but England are looking back. And now even the minnows are biting at their heels.
As the long-forgotten Alesha Dixon might have put it, had she been permitted to sing in the rain, "the boys done nothing". On Sunday, if the fates have any decency, England's World Cup journey will come to an end after a pitiful three days. And the teams that actually want to be here will carry their tournament for them.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo