January 20, 2010

Why all the doom and gloom?

England have done surprisingly well over the season just past. It's not the end of the world for them by a long chalk

"Have your say on who should face the axe after South Africa tour," the Times invited its readers on Monday. Excuse me while I spit.

How short can memories get? Eight months ago, amid the wreckage of a miserable Caribbean tour, if you had told the two Andrews, Strauss and Flower, or any England supporter, that their team would finish 2009 holding the Ashes and a 1-0 lead in the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy series, against a formidable if rusty side that had recently topped the ICC Test rankings and lost just five home series out of 27 since readmission, they would have severely questioned the number of marbles at your disposal. Had you predicted that this would have been accomplished with scant help from Andrew Flintoff or Kevin Pietersen, a straitjacket might have been proffered. One distracted, eminently forgettable performance later and all, apparently, is doom and gloom. So much for proportional representation.

What do the UDRS and Strauss's England have in common? Both are works in progress, flawed but promising, better than the sum of their wonky parts. "We're not good enough," acknowledged Strauss with characteristic candour. As a statement of the blindingly obvious it was hard to dispute, but perhaps a slight tweak is in order. England were often good enough but nowhere near often enough.

Let's contextualise what they did get right, most notably the triumph in the one-dayers and the Durban Test, which saw them inflict South Africa's fourth-heaviest defeat since readmission. Posterity, though, will recall those jailbreaks at Centurion and Cape Town with even greater relish.

How often does the outcome of a Test depend on the final scheduled delivery? Nowhere near as frequently as some might think. There have been 19 instances of time running out with the side batting fourth nine wickets down, four times when anything from a single to a six would have changed the result (if we include India v West Indies in Bombay in 1948-49 when, according to Jeff Stollmeyer's autobiography, the final over comprised just five deliveries, leaving the hosts six short), and two occasions when a side held on with nine wickets down to stave off an innings defeat (England at Old Trafford 1998 and Cardiff 2009, although in the latter case, strictly speaking, Australia, had they taken the final wicket a minute or two earlier, would have required 14 runs off one over). And no, I haven't forgotten the two tied Tests: both went down only to the penultimate ball.

So that makes 25 such nerve-shredding climaxes in getting on for 2000 Tests: an 80-1 shot. At 54-1, a Test hat-trick (37 at the time of writing) is 33% more likely. Given that there have been nearly 550 series comprising at least two games, the odds on such a finish occurring twice in the same rubber are too long to warrant serious examination by anyone other than the most assiduous bookie or devout mathematician.

Eight months ago if you had told any England supporter that their team would finish 2009 holding the Ashes and a 1-0 lead in the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy series, they would have severely questioned the number of marbles at your disposal

That the last three of those 25 denouements have all been attributable to defiance from the same team in the space of six short months (okay, twice by the same team, once by one with eight of the same members) is creditable enough. That each final ball was repelled by the last man accentuates the improbability. Such consummate brinkmanship must say something mildly complimentary about the spirit of that team. What a pity the unseemly kvetching over Graeme Smith's disputed edge at the Wanderers disrupted concentration, engendering a siege mentality at odds with the rest of a heartening tour.

Yes, South Africa came within two wickets of taking the series 3-1, for all that that would have been a distortion of an engrossing contest that saw bat and ball compete, refreshingly, on level terms. Yes, the Strauss-Flower sides lack the individual lustre of the Vaughan-Fletcher administration - at best, a composite XI would include, in Matt Prior and Graeme Swann, only two additions to the 2005 Ashes-retrievers. The current lot, though, may well possess a stiffer backbone. Prior summed up this resilience with implacable logic shortly before the Johannesburg Test: "If you are winning the games you ought to win and not losing the games you ought to lose, you are not going to lose many series. The environment in and around the team at the moment is incredible." Has one defeat, however numbing and humbling, changed that? One trusts not.

The first hurdle, then, appears to have been surmounted. But being difficult to beat and becoming the first collection of Poms to win the Ashes Down Under for more than two decades, however deep the hosts' troubles run, is a different kettle of cod altogether. Nothing less than convincing victories over their next two opponents, Bangladesh and Pakistan, will suffice, but even that may not tell us much.

Understandably, inevitably, the decision to allow Strauss to miss the Bangladesh tour has attracted derision aplenty, yet the logic, given England's schedule for the next 12 months, seems inarguable. Post-Durban, where his bullish 54 was immeasurably more significant than the sum of its runs, the captain has looked in increasingly sore need of a spot of R and R. Alastair Cook's credentials as his deputy may be dubious, but what better opportunity to suck and see? A run-out at No. 3, giving Ian Bell a chance to open with Michael Carberry, might not be a bad idea either.

Without wishing to disparage Bangladesh, the pity, even allowing for the selection of Carberry, Stephen Davies, Ajmal Shahzad and James Tredwell, is that an opportunity has been missed to run the rule over even more fringe candidates, to properly assess the strength in depth. Ian Blackwell and Ed Joyce, both revitalised since moving counties, Middlesex's rangy young quick Steven Finn, and Leicestershire's diminutive batting prodigy James Taylor would all have been worth an audition.

Amid the widespread knee-jerking that followed England's last-but-one Test reversal, August's Headingley hammering by Australia, the same old line was trotted out almost without pause, much less thought: county cricket is a shallow pool. Yet while Justin Langer's judgment may not be as astute as it was, it wasn't all that long ago that he was insisting the County Championship had become an even more rigorous test of mettle than the Sheffield Shield.

As if to bear that out, of England's last 16 Test debutants, only Amjad Khan and Darren Pattinson have failed to at least hint at a touch of the right class. If temperament is the acid test, most have passed it. Four of the top six at The Oval last summer (Cook, Strauss, Prior and Jonathan Trott) had notched hundreds on debut; Graeme Swann struck twice in his first over, in India to boot; Graham Onions reeled in seven victims. Nor did Pietersen exactly disgrace himself.

Which brings us to England's chief quandary. To observe Pietersen over the past two months has been to witness a troubled soul and a fracturing technique. Achilles tendons don't mend easily but physical difficulties scarcely explain that mounting tendency to play across the line or with a crooked blade. What was once a strength is now a weakness. Opponents are simply waiting for him to self-destruct. Whether forcing the pace too soon or retreating too long into that seldom-inhabited shell, the sense of confusion, of someone at odds with himself, has been depressingly painful to watch.

This is not a man accustomed to failure. How he copes with it, how he drags himself away from its debilitating clutches, finds a balance between instinct and responsibility, could prove to be the most searching examination of his professional life. Consulting others willy-nilly can only exacerbate that confusion, but given the beneficial impact the former England captain patently had on Cook, Pietersen could do a hell of a lot worse than enlist the help of Graham Gooch, whose own stumbling career prospered once he learned to temper his aggression. To ward off the stifling tentacles of self-doubt, a pep talk from Shane Warne wouldn't go amiss either.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • jonkerr7 on January 21, 2010, 6:16 GMT

    As an Aussie I am really looking forward to the next Ashes series. England have shown great spirit and an ability to tough out tight situations. They have players like Swann and Collingwood who mightn't look great but are always competitive and in Swann they have a true match winner. Others chip in and have patches of brilliance that change matches. Match this with an Aussie side starting to find its feet, developing some new guys (Bollinger, Mackay, Siddle), developing new found confidence (Hauritz and Haddin) and still with a touch of world beating quality... we have a cracking, evenly matched compelling series. Yes it could be scrappy, yes it could include hemorrhaging collapses but it will be hard fought and edge of your seat stuff. One collapse does not a side make!

  • jackiethepen on January 21, 2010, 1:18 GMT

    To ask the British media to give a balanced view is asking for the moon. they are knee-jerk merchants. At the Wanderers a result pitch was designed for their bowlers without shame. If SA had been ahead they would have asked for a featherbed for the draw. Can Cook be a No 3 for England when his batting is still in question? All the hype in the world won't disguise that Cook had to rigidly restrict his strokes to survive. The Aussies will have been watching all the videos in preparation for the Ashes. The proposal that Bell can be moved up to open without any regard to his development sums up the negligent attitude to Bell who outplayed all of his teammates but Colly. Bell is a far better batsman than Cook and if England had any sense they would be concentrating on his future, not treating him as an oddsbody. Rob Steen's lack of appreciation of Bell is typical of experts who would have seen him dropped. Bell triumphed at 3 at the Oval but Trott was preferred. Another mess to clear up.

  • Anneeq on January 20, 2010, 23:13 GMT

    People have treated England unfairly, theyv pushed South Africa the whole way in South Africa. They played good cricket, very dtermined cricket too (which was shown by the 2 draws) and there were infact long periods where England were on top in the series. The Ashes are also back in English hands too, this is not the doom and gloom everyone is making out!!!!

  • Maui3 on January 20, 2010, 23:11 GMT

    England is certainly on the right track. What missing is not very good performances, but the ability to sustain it over a period os a test match and a series. It is probably the most balanced side - balance of youth and experience, a very good spinner, decent fast bowlers, two potentially good allrounders and a core of good batsman. If I were to pick one team to be #1 in 5 years, I would bet on England. India with Tendulkar/Dravid/Laxman and good fast bowlers will have to rebuild, SA lacks quality spin and will suffer whe Kallis retires, Australia without a decent spinner and Ponting will not become #1 for quite sometime, though they'll be decent. Pak with all their young talent would always be a inconsistent team. SL is way weak on foreign soil and NZ and WI have a big hill to climb. England however need to figure out how they can take 20 wkts consistantly with 4 bowlers that include Swann and Broad. One of them need to become a batting alrounder to accomodate an extra bowler.

  • inswing on January 20, 2010, 17:40 GMT

    To come away with a drawn series in SA is a commendable performance by England. The strength shown in drawing two tests should be praised and built upon, especially with their best batsman totally out of form. The dissonance comes from the the fact that people think of England in different ways. Their performance was bad if you think of England as "the best" or top one or two teams in the world, which they never were to begin with. If you think of them as #4 or #5 team in the world (which they really are), then to go to SA (a top 2 team) and draw a series in their back yard is a very good performance. English media will hype them as the "best" as soon as they win a little something, and then will be all outraged when the perform to their true potential (like this series). You should not be disappointed at all in England if you have realistic expectations.

  • schnoggs on January 20, 2010, 12:52 GMT

    I agree that the England team is moving forward, my initial concern (being a SA fan) when looking at the starting 11 was the long batting line up and how would SA take 20 wickets. I was proved to be correct with only a lively wicket at the Wanderers and the best fast bowling spells for years by Steyn and Morkel being the exception.

    England have a fairly experienced team (mostly over 25 yrs) and this team has the ability to challenge Australia down under - although the Aussies are something different back home. Glen McGrath certainly wont be predicting a whitewash but I cant see Englands bowling attack bowling out Australia twice on their own turf. Out of the "top 4", I think SA has the most potential (Duminy, Parnell, Steyn, Morkel, De Villiers) ahead of the rest. Who are Englands up and coming youngsters besides Keiswater?

  • adamatworldcricketshow on January 20, 2010, 9:58 GMT

    well said Rob

    it seems disturbing to me that the english media, with considerable encouragement from the south africans, are now recasting the narrative of this series as one exclusively of south african dominance and english inferiority.

    yes, the home side probably played the better cricket on balance, but, quite apart from the fact that there were long spells where the visitors were on top, south africa's advances were almost always met with stubborn resilience. how often have we been able to associate the word 'resilience' with the england cricket team?

    jamaica, leeds, johannesburg - these are desperate performances. but don't let them mask the fact that, in the last 12 months, england have been going rapidly in the right direction

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