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They have to see a glass that is half-full, and play the game as if it is just that, a game; and an opportunity
July 21, 2014
What happened at Lord's on Monday was a shock. Have you ever seen such a change of emphasis from one session to the next? Not sure I have. At 12.59pm, England were close to an even-money bet. Barely more than a soccer match later, India were celebrating a monumental win that confounded the odds offered once the toss had been decided on Thursday morning. After Trent Bridge, MS Dhoni said he didn't think much of playing on boring pitches and would much prefer to be confronted by traditional English conditions. He did not go so far as say he would win on them too but he might well have thought so.
Dhoni brushes aside India's disastrous last tour of England, citing critical injuries and the start of the changing of the guard as the reason for the drubbing. He acknowledges that England were twice the side then and is privately dumbfounded at things such as the Pietersen business this time. He is such a dude. I mean, Ishant Sharma's short-pitched attack after lunch seemed an absurd tactic until England fell for it. And how those batsmen fell for it! It was a spectacular cop-out, inexplicable and inexcusable.
For two hours before lunch Joe Root and Moeen Ali batted pretty much as well as man can bat. The loss of Moeen on the stroke of lunch was unfortunate but hardly terminal. After lunch the lunatics took over the asylum. The Forbes 100 list has Dhoni ranked the 22nd richest sportsman in the world and India's second Test match victory at Lord's will surely enhance that share price. He could hardly believe his luck. Neither could he help but be pleased for the endlessly game Ishant. There is something immensely appealing about Ishant's personality. Ian Botham used to take wickets with his personality. Shane Warne too. Ishant did just that at Lord's. At the moment, it appears that England have forgotten about personality.
After such a numbing defeat, the selectors need to make some changes. Alastair Cook wants to stay on. (At least, he says he does. He mentioned that he was in it for the long haul until he feels a tap on the shoulder, almost as if it would be a merciful thing. But I'm probably imagining that.) The management have backed him so conspicuously that there is no likelihood of a tapping yet. It is a long time - Mike Brearley I think - since England picked a captain first and then the team: as against a captain chosen from the best 11 players. But that, incredibly, is what is now happening. Cook's batting does not warrant selection but harping on about it gets us nowhere. We know he can bat but he has a fundamental flaw to fix and has five days to do it. He is in.
I fear Sam Robson should be out, which is so cruel. But there is no personality in his batting. Which raises a point about players fitting into a team ethic. Apparently, Nick Compton was high maintenance. Moody, contrary and then so insular that no one could see the good in his ambition. The fact is, he wanted success as an England batsman so much that it hurt. That is no bad thing thing but it takes understanding and managing, particularly when the pain becomes obvious and weighs on others.
Michael Carberry had a dig at some of the senior staff. Oh, and he spoke in favour of Kevin Pietersen. Goodnight nurse. It is a pity that the modern player lives in a straitjacket. The dangers of social media play their part in this, along with an ongoing ideological pursuit of team spirit. Freedom of expression matters and tends to encourage a greater sense of self-worth.
Pietersen was the highest maintenance, worth it for nine years, but then he became unmanageable - and his texts to the South Africans two years ago are the downside of free thinking. He dug his own hole back then and, in retrospect, was never likely to fill it for as long as the team retained its core players.
Paul Downton is a thoroughly good man but he cannot possibly have known what he was getting into. He might now wish he had had a good sniff around for six months and made some conclusions of his own before taking drastic and irreversible actions. Reasonably enough he acted on the opinion of other, well-respected people. Assumptions were made and, typically, they mother many a cock-up.
Carberry and Compton remain good options to replace Robson, though dropping Robson hardly seems fair given Cook retains his place. Gary Ballance, Root and Ali are safe. Root is a heck of a batsman, playing one heck of an innings. When he followed general suit and slapped one down deep square leg's throat, he almost swallowed his bat in embarrassment and disgust.
Ian Bell should bat at 3. Ballance would be fine at 5. It is a small thing but Bell needs to become more accountable otherwise he will be accused of a softness that betrays his ability. With Cook, Robson and Ballance in the top three, England have no enforcer. It is an easy group to bowl at because each has limitations. There is an art to knowing the geography of your off stump but part of the art is scoring in that area, not simply watching the world go by.
Matt Prior was not fit. Either that or he has lost the speed of reaction in his eye. It happens to everyone at some stage, most at around the age of 33 or 34, some younger. You pick up the ball a fraction of a second later. It is not discernible thing, it creeps up on you. The short ball is getting him out too often for it to be a coincidence. When he dives to take catches, he is having to move across and down rather than just across, on a horizontal plane. These problems may signal a dying of the light and were enough to convince him to stand down.
Two summers ago, Ted Dexter told me that during his many years playing for and watching England, Prior was the cricketer who had improved most from the day he was first picked to the point at which he had conclusively cemented his place in the side. It was a mighty compliment. Immediately after the match, Cook was quick to stand by his friend, which was fair enough. Prior, sensing the worst, was less forgiving of himself. Jos Buttler's time has come.
Chris Jordan has personality and should be recalled. It was a daft to decision to jettison one so exciting. He does stuff others do not. There is no obvious reason for this, except desire. In fact, this is a nagging question that faces the selectors: do the senior players still have that desire? The I-want-it-so-much-it-hurts thing that is a minimum requirement for international sport. The selectors may think of leaving one of them out. Perhaps Stuart Broad, who seems oddly off-colour.
Because Ben Stokes looks lost at sea when he comes to bat, his status as an allrounder must be reviewed in the immediate future. His bowling has strength, pace and energy but it does not have the happy knack of picking up wickets when others cannot. Chris Woakes is a nice all-round cricketer but hardly smothered in the "p" word. Jordan can adequately fill the Stokes shoes, for now, while Stokes himself can return to the shires and rekindle the flame that burned so bright in Australia.
A spinning allrounder would be handy. The pitches this summer are so dry. Let's return to the pursuit of personality then. Here is one: Samit Patel. The roly-polys were not Andy Flower's cup of tea and doubtless are not Peter Moores' either. But there should never be a template for a cricketer. The brilliance and beauty of the game is that it provides for all shapes and sizes. Samit should be in the XII for Southampton.
James Anderson remains a given because he so obviously cares for the greater good. Whatever he said, and did or did not do in the Trent Bridge pavilion corridor, he should apologise. Humility would placate the Indians. In turn, Ravindra Jadeja should do the same. Nothing worthwhile can come of charge and counter-charge, and anyway the row is a distraction affecting England more than India. Cricket is dependent on respect - for oneself, for one's opponent and for the game itself. Give it due respect and the rewards are irresistible. Treat cricket with disdain and it will keep biting back, until there is little of you left.
Liam Plunkett stays after a tremendous return from the wilderness. He has shown immense character and provides an example and inspiration to anyone who falls upon hard times. On that note, if Steve Finn is anywhere near, bring him home, bring him home. Angus Fraser, a selector these days, should be able to turn his right thumb to heaven or hell on that one. Middlesex have much in order and Fraser will be across the extent of the progress. Finn brings great enthusiasm to his task and, better still, remains the most feared opponent in the county game.
So that is 17 players in the mix, without mentioning the silky touch and timing that belongs to James Vince. Yes, he is a Hampshire lad but it is the umpires who give him an unconditional rap.
Selection is a hard job because the great unknown is a man's temperament in the face of the brutal scrutiny that now accompanies international sportsmen every step of their way. It was a master stroke to leave Ballance well alone after his night on the tiles. This is not to say he got it right, rather to say that getting it wrong need not be the end of the world. England have to see a glass that is half-full. They have to play the game as if it is just that, a game. And an opportunity. Of course, no one will sleep easier tonight than MS Dhoni but there are enough good cricketers in England to sneak up on him in the dark and spring a Southampton surprise.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UKFeeds: Mark Nicholas
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