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