A hole in England's bucket
You had to be at Headingley to really understand how much treacle Nick Compton was batting in. If it's possible for a batsman to sink beneath a pitch and only pop up for air at the end of each over, Compton was doing that. He knew there was pressure on him to make runs. And while many were calling for him to speed up, many of them were cricket journalists who wanted to leave Leeds. England had more time than Harlequin and the Ticktockman.
Compton didn't, though. He was an odd choice for England. He does not fit the blueprint of an English player. He is a county player who makes runs. He is a self-made man. It's hard to see how he ever would have fit into their team environment. If Compton wasn't an instant success, he wouldn't last.
What is weird is that his batting is almost perfectly designed for England. It's how they got to the top of the world. Top-order batsmen putting a exorbitant price on their wickets. Taking their sweet time. Tiring balls and bowlers. And building totals that gave their bowlers a psychological advantage almost every time they bowl. That is what Nick Compton does. He's not pretty. He's not fun. His batting reminds no one of jazz hands. He just accumulates in his own bubble until someone pops it.
This year he is averaging 42 in first-class cricket. He will score over 1000 runs for the fifth time. Compton made back-to-back hundreds in New Zealand. Three Tests later he was discarded. Dropped for not scoring quick enough in a game that England won by 247 runs, or just because he wasn't the right kind of guy.
But Nick Compton will never play for England again. He is just not one of them.
To the outside world Jonathan Trott seemed like a run-making robot. Face ball. Mark crease. Face ball. Inside the crowded England dressing room they knew better.
There had to be signs before the Gabba that everything was not right. And perhaps they even tried to do their best to keep Trott happy and performing. But it didn't work. All that preparation looked silly when one Test into the Ashes their No. 3 went home. Their wellness technicians had failed.
Trott was the poster boy for calm, efficient, focused England. But after that Test he became the poster boy for everything that was wrong with English cricket. The lack of fun. The tedium. The strictness. The soul-sucking machine that ate the good times. Trott wasn't having fun. He wasn't feeling relaxed. So when his cricket went wrong he tried harder. Which just made it worse.
England did much the same. The team might have stayed on the tour. But mentally they checked out. The sight of an English player smiling at practice disappeared. Meanwhile Darren Lehmann had his face in perpetual smile mode. Andy Flower had been one of the best coaches in the world, but now he looked like a confused man. And he couldn't change tack. He just kept sailing in the same direction he always had.
Flower backed himself and his ways. But while his ways did so much, they also appeared part of the problem. With England on seemingly endless tours, and playing and preparing in the same grinding way, it was no great surprise that key members couldn't handle it anymore. Trott went home. Swann gave up. Anderson was zombiefied. And Matt Prior's game stopped working.
When Andy Flower delivered his epic pre-match valediction in Sydney, Trott and Swann were gone. Prior was out. And the other senior players looked on blankly. Flower could no longer move his players.
In the Ashes, Mitchell Johnson provided shock and awe. England produced shlock and awful.
Where did Simon Kerrigan go? Had Shane Watson actually blasted him into oblivion? Were there groundsmen sweeping him up off the pitch at the breaks? Because he bowled eight overs at The Oval, and then was never seen again. He was not even seen as Australia tripped all over their second-innings total-setting. Not even for an over. When Swann retired in Australia, he didn't even get his name mentioned. James Tredwell did. Monty Panesar played. And Borthwick played.
Scott Borthwick. You remember, right? The Durham batsman who England picked as a bowler five Tests ago. He took wickets, perhaps not brilliant ones, but any wickets in Australia should have received a gift of land back in the UK. He shared his only Test with Boyd Rankin.
Rankin is gone as well. Not that he ever felt included. He was hired to play goon number three in the second act of the Ashes. Big men, bouncing the ball hard into the wicket and making Australia jump. He was an underwhelming understudy to Chris Tremlett.
Tremlett phoned his performance in. He was picked on memories and hope. One Test in and England decided he was not who they wanted. It seems like they never told him. He just continued to turn up day after day, essentially refiling paperwork that didn't need refiling, not knowing if he'd ever be needed again. He and Michael Carberry are not fans of ECB communication.
Michael Carberry was sort of the follow-up to Nick Compton. He fit in better, and he could do a great Viv Richards impersonation. But despite all those people in the ECB camp, it seemed no one would provide him with an answer for why he wasn't there anymore. He might as well be Graham Onions or James Taylor, if either of those people still exist.
In the 2012 World T20 they failed to make the semi-finals when they turned up as reigning champions. They collapsed from a near unloseable position in the Champions Trophy final.
They lost to the Dutch.
At Trent Bridge a tired Stuart Broad ended the match bowling at Stuart Binny pace. There is a thought that Broad is a clever bowler who can out-think a batsman. He can be. But you know when he's really good: when he bowls really fast. Full or short, but really fast. With swing, or even without, but fast, yeah. Because Broad can bowl really fast. He is a proper fast bowler. His spell at Durham in the Ashes was fast. His spell at Lord's against the Kiwis was fast. His hat-trick against India was fast. His hat-trick against Sri Lanka was fast. So the sight of Matt Prior up at the stumps to him as he bowled the old man's Saturday- afternoon spell of gentle outswing was not inspiring.
Broad has bowled a lot of overs. Graeme Swann has bowled more.
Swann bowled so much, he seemed to be playing for more teams than just England. I'm sure he must have played some ODIs for Sri Lanka, and a Test series for Bangladesh. Increasingly, you could hear the creak of his elbow as he bowled. He had it fixed once, and to celebrate, he bowled a lot more. England spent much of his career with no other spinner and no serious allrounder to share the load. Swann bowled until he was no longer good at it. He could have bowled in two more Tests while being no good at it, but he'd bowled enough. He doesn't bowl now.
His friend Jimmy Anderson still bowls. He bowls more often than any seam bowler has ever bowled at Test level. He bowls more than spinners as well. At Trent Bridge a year ago, he bowled a 14-over spell. It won the Test match. It was his last five-wicket haul. He has not been horrible since then. He was Man of the Match at Trent Bridge. But he doesn't look like the Anderson who helped England get to No. 1. He looks like a man who has bowled more deliveries than anyone else in the world. He's a hologram of himself; you can literally see the flickering as he runs in.
When England's batsmen stopped making their monumental totals, it was these three men who saved them. Regularly. Now one is gone, one is a hologram, and one is bowling slow. Why? Because England's schedule is stupid. Stupid. They simply play too many Tests. They play Tests more often than India and Sri Lanka play ODIs. They play Tests while you are sleeping, when you wake up, and during your afternoon nap. They do it over and over again. They're probably playing one now.
And while old players like to say modern players are soft and can't handle workloads, and that they bowled 83-over spells barefoot in the snow, the truth is, no one has ever endured the workloads these three men have had to endure at the top level. And here is a little secret for you: others have played a lot of cricket, but most of it has been in county seasons. It rains a lot in county seasons. You can bowl in third gear in county seasons. You can coast in county seasons.
None of Swann, Broad or Anderson are all-time greats. Swann is the only one with a bowling average of under 30, and it's 29.96. At Test level, they can't coast. They are just not that good. They have to play at their absolute maximum or they will fail. They played to their best. They went as hard as they could.
During their time together they beat Australia. They beat India. They beat Pakistan. They beat Sri Lanka. They beat New Zealand. They beat West Indies. They beat Bangladesh. And they drew with South Africa.
They lost to the schedule.
The phrase "new era" is grating. And too close to "new error". It sounds like it has been market-tested, or suggested by a sports psychologist. It's positive and peppy, and it doesn't really mean a thing. South Africa are in a new era. India are in a new era. Australia are using old players in a new era. Sri Lanka are about to enter a new era. It a new era for New Zealand too.
England could have used "rebuilding". But it lacks the sparkle of "new era". So it became a catchphrase. Low ebb, which some suggested, was never going to stick for the ECB.
So what is new? The chairman and captain are not new. The coach is not really new. The bowling coach is not new. The two main bowlers are not new. The No. 4 batsman and wicketkeeper are not new. The old coach is there, hiding somewhere behind his green curtain at Loughborough.
So what is new? The selectors are new. The assistant coach is new. Nos. 2, 3 and 6 are new. Two allrounders are new. And the managing director is new.
They fired their batsman most likely to win them matches. And their batting coach. And they continue to lose. It's more than possible that a positive catchphrase won't win it for them. It's more than possible they can't manage this. They couldn't manage Kevin Pietersen, and these last nine Tests have been as bad as what they said, hinted or leaked KP's behavior to be.
KP didn't fail consistently against the short ball. KP didn't bowl the wrong lengths. KP didn't put six fielders out for a No. 10. KP didn't bowl the bowlers to death. KP didn't schedule the bowlers to death. KP didn't drop all the simple chances. KP didn't take over world cricket. KP didn't mismanage the players. KP didn't fail to communicate with the players. KP didn't get the analysis wrong. KP wasn't outcoached. KP didn't get mankaded. KP doesn't back people based on their family. KP was KP. For better or worse.
This whole team was crumbling in front of them and they were whistling new era at us and moaning about someone they asked their fans to move on from. There is a hole in your bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza.
When England officially announced their part in the Axis of Admin with Australia and India, they tried to spin it as their way of saving cricket. They thought we were all incredibly stupid people. Some in the "small seven" felt England were joining India and Australia in a new empire. One last chance at grabbing at power and money. Others were disgusted that England would be involved with those dastardly Indians, who were clearly running, or ruining, everything.
Their team has been just as bad.
They pissed on a cricket pitch. Some claim there was such bad karma that they haven't won a Test since. But they also didn't win at The Oval, so it might be more than urinating causality.
They stole Sri Lanka's coach right before Sri Lanka came over to play them. They have more money than Sri Lanka, and they wanted Farbrace. They got Farbrace. It was all a bit, "I want an oompa loompa now, daddy."
Stuart Broad not walking seemed to break the heart of every major sports newspaper writer in the UK. Those men who had not watched cricket outside the Ashes in decades suddenly noticed it and got upset. Stuart Broad had nicked to slip (actually it was a drop by Brad Haddin, first) and not walked. And he'd done it to the bowling of that terribly entertaining young No. 11, Ashton Agar. It was against the Spirit of Cricket.
They had also invoked the Spirit of Cricket rules when Ian Bell "made a mistake", wandered out of his ground while the ball was still in play and was run out by India on the last ball before tea. Andrew Strauss wandered all the way into the Indian dressing room to have him reinstated. Or reintegrated.
Yet Broad is happy to do up his shoelaces for hours on end when England want to slow down the over rate. Or leave the field at the end of a drinks break to go to the toilet to take time out of a game. No team has ever been as organised or professional at time-wasting as England. They are the Neo of world cricket. Time literally stops when they want it too. And that has been a lot of late.
When the Sri Lankan offspinner Sachithra Senanayake legally mankaded Jos Buttler, England were upset. They were less upset about all the twos Buttler had scored while he was out of his ground, repeatedly getting a head start. Sri Lanka had broken the spirit of the game; Buttler had just broken the Laws, even after being warned.
When James Anderson puts his hand over his mouth, he is sledging someone. When Joe Root pretends he is clapping his hands near a batsman to gee on his team, he is really sledging. Swann once said he wanted to kill a player during a tour match in Sri Lanka. Pietersen bad-mouthed James Taylor to his own team, and abused Strauss to the opposition. His team-mates abused him back. The whole team had an honesty session. KP was too honest and they dobbed him in.
Off the field they are not much better. Paul Downton said stuff about Pietersen, then apologised. Giles Clarke, well, he is Giles Clarke, there is no other like him. Well, actually he is a lot like Pietersen. Arrogant, bombastic, prone to saying stupid things, and breathtakingly unapologetic. And ultimately living in his own world.
When he said that Alastair Cook came from the right kind of family, cricket groaned in the UK. It was a massive step backwards. It was proof that your upbringing and background still mattered in England. All the Sky money you want can't shake that single damaging impression that cricket in the UK is still for those who went to schools older than Wisden.
There are some that think English cricket has an image problem. Really, they just have a problem.
The Lord's balcony is a private place to chat. But conversations there can be seen by anyone left in the ground. So the conversations between Cook and Broad were looked at with great interest from the press box. So too were the conversations between Anderson and Moores. And then again when Cook and Moores sat there. All three conversations were had with the door of the balcony shut. All three were serious and long. England were still in the ground four hours after play.
It looked more like soul-searching than them naming their favourite songs from Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Occasionally there was a ghostly figure moving behind them, but the men didn't turn around or fear them; they just continued their haunted conversations.
They seemed oblivious to the fans still drinking their champagne in the pavilion. They didn't stop if someone stumbled out onto the ground to take an out-of-focus selfie. Nor when the Sky cables were removed or the boundary-rope triangles were collected.
All three conversations looked exactly like people breaking up in a public place. There was no anger, just a devastated acceptance. The stench of hurt and confusion could be smelt from the other side of the ground. They had the look of men who didn't know how to get out or improve. It was a balcony. It could have been a gallows.
Sports teams love business fads, because people in sports haven't worked in business much, so they have no idea how unimpressive business methods are. How pointless and depressing it all is. Group hugs. Thought showers. KPIs. Punch a puppy. Blue-sky thinking. Singing from the same hymn sheets. And endless matrixes. England's backroom is littered with these sorts of things.
They even employed the famous Myers Briggs personality tests to better understand how to best use their players. Or how to best fire them.
You cannot fail a Myers Briggs Test. But if England took it right now, they would. If England lose 4-0 against India, they will be ranked sixth in the world. Supposedly the most professional side in cricket's history. Sixth.
They manage. They test. They superfood. They analyse. They sabermetric. They annoy. They waste time. They spin. They rule. They catchphrase.