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Which one are England playing for? They need to clear their heads quickly and find out
February 9, 2009
Where did it all go wrong? That is the question that England were left pondering on Sunday, as they lolled around the Hilton hotel in Kingston, keeping low profiles and killing time on the most improbable day off in recent Test history.
It's a question that will haunt their dreams tonight as well, and will doubtless tail them around the edge of Kingston Harbour to Norman Manley Airport later in the day, as they leave the scene of their crime against Test batting, and fly off to regroup on arguably the last island that any of the squad would have chosen for a new beginning - Antigua.
Where did it all go wrong? If you're looking for a scapegoat as convenient as Ian Bell's imminent sacking as a Test No. 3, then look no further than the paradise isle itself, a nation with as many beaches as days of the year and which, during the Stanford Super Series in November last year, proved to be as boggy to England's prospects as a wicket rolled with quicksand.
It is simplistic but instructive to examine England's efforts before and since that week in the winter sun. On November 1, they squandered the opportunity to become instant dollar millionaires amid petty bickerings about the lights, atmosphere and ethics of the contest. Instead they were rolled over for 99 by Chris Gayle's Stanford Superstars, which was riches (of the non-literal type) compared to the miserable 51 they mustered at Sabina Park on Saturday.
Before they started playing for pocket money instead of pride, England had won five matches in a row under the inspirational (and ephemeral) leadership of Kevin Pietersen. Since that week they have lost seven internationals out of eight, and their captain and coach as well. That doesn't amount to a scientific study, but as circumstantial evidence goes, it's damning nonetheless.
But where, in the same period, has it all gone right for West Indies? No matter what happens for the rest of the series, regional pride has been reaffirmed in the most uncompromising manner imaginable. Their fourth-day performance was symmetry, poetry and tyranny all rolled into one - the timing, almost five years on from Steve Harmison's conquering of Kingston, was exquisite; the execution, in the form of Jerome Taylor's searing full-length seamers, deadly.
And it could be argued that that performance, too, had its roots in November's Stanford demolition. The crossover between the West Indies Test team and the Superstars is not absolute by any means - only six players featured in both matches. Nevertheless, all four of the key performers in the Sabina Park victory - Gayle, Taylor, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Sulieman Benn - were present in Antigua as well.
Stanford has not been kind to Caribbean cricket since that night. His largesse has been scaled back amid rumours of financial problems, and last month he laid off 200 staff in his Antiguan-based operation. But for a squad of players whose professional lives have been spent coping with the whims of a near-bankrupt cricket board, that fleeting but definite proof of their worth as athletes has proved more galvanising than any victory they had ever before achieved.
As Gayle himself declared after sealing that US$20 million bounty: "This is better than anything in the world, I'll tell you straight up." Whether he still believes that after the glory of Kingston is a moot point. A maiden century on home soil and a victory to rank among West Indies' greatest of all time provides quite some competition in the pantheon. But by first learning to win for themselves, West Indies - so often accused of divisions and partisanship - have been given a reason to rediscover what it means to win for the region.
As fate would have it, the teams have no alternative but to be reminded of November's match-up when they touch down in Antigua. The route from the airport takes them straight past Sir Allen Stanford's private ground, and if Andrew Strauss, Pietersen's successor, needs any more reasons to feel undermined in his new role, he will doubtless recall that he was not even deemed worthy of a place in England's ill-starred squad. Instead he played in the tournament for his county side, Middlesex, for whom he managed 42 runs in three consecutive defeats.
|When the IPL came calling for Pietersen, Andrew Flintoff and a smattering of their team-mates, they responded as if they were withdrawing their labour en masse, bailing out of a tightly fought contest in Jamaica and tumbling instead to that incredible innings defeat|
Whereas Gayle and his team-mates recognise the opportunities in cricket's crazy new era of untold riches, the changing game has so far proved disastrous for England. Despite being among the highest-paid cricketers in the world, they spent most of 2008 grousing about their lack of opportunities in the IPL, and then finally, when the franchises came calling for Pietersen, Andrew Flintoff and a smattering of their team-mates, they responded as if they were withdrawing their labour en masse, bailing out of a tightly fought contest in Jamaica and tumbling instead to that incredible innings defeat.
It almost feels as though Pietersen's declaration to Gayle during the Stanford game - "we don't need the money" - has become England's team motto. His words may have been clumsily expressed but they deserve to be reported in the spirit they were uttered; he was genuinely touched by the rags-to-riches tales that were unfolding right before his eyes, as men such as Benn and Darren Sammy awoke to the realisation that their families would never again flirt with poverty. Nevertheless, England have long stood accused of being stuck in a comfort zone, and their lack of hunger at key moments this winter has been truly incriminating.
That maybe says something about modern British society as a whole, although ironically, nowhere in the world has more of a reputation for being laidback than Jamaica. Right at this moment in time, however, achievement is very much in vogue in the island. Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world, was present at Sabina Park on Saturday, and his heroics during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing have, by all accounts, conferred an identity on his compatriots that has not been felt since the cricketers ruled the world in the 1980s.
Bolt is another man who has been amply rewarded for his talents in recent months, but that does not diminish his standing - far from it. One of the great pities about West Indian cricket's era of hegemony was the complete lack of financial reward that came with the success. Playing for pride was all very well, but it could not be perpetuated in a society that forced a distinction between breadwinners and heroes.
All that is changing now. There may not be another Stanford inter-island competition, (and more's the pity to be honest) but the past two tournaments have provided an invaluable leg-up to the game. Caribbean cricketers are back in the shop window - Taylor and Fidel Edwards were the latest to join the IPL gravy train during Friday's auction - and success now has a tangible reason to breed further success.
That doesn't mean that the region's fans will always be treated to the sort of jaw-dropping feats we witnessed this weekend, but nevertheless, the incentive at least is in place. England, meanwhile, need to clear their heads quickly and work out whether they are in this game for money or pride. Unlike their opponents, they seem incapable of accepting it both ways.
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