England's match with Netherlands was, in many ways, the least relevant of the 23 internationals they have played in all formats this winter. Both teams had already been eliminated; the England team is likely to be scheduled for dismantlement under whichever new coaching overlord is appointed; they have only two T20 internationals scheduled this summer, and their limited-overs focus will be trained entirely on next year's World Cup. Objectively, this game was completely meaningless. And yet England miraculously conspired to find a way to make it seem to be the most relevant match they have played in years, an expression of all that has crumbled in the last few months. It was not, in the greater scheme of their catastrophic, resources-defying season. But, in the heat of what should have been battle, it seemed to be.
They were unremittingly drubbed by an impressive Dutch bowling and fielding performance, failing to chase down a moderate target with striking anti-aplomb. And yet, England had been tantalisingly close to departing the competition with dignity intact, which was perhaps the height of many England supporters' expectations.
It is true that they had been knocked out approximately when most people expected them to be knocked out, having recorded the exact number of wins (or one more than the number of wins) that people were expecting them to be knocked out with. But at least they had played - or, at least, batted - quite well, and, in their spectacular victory over Sri Lanka, played some of their best cricket of the winter. Admittedly, as accolades go, "England's best cricket of the 2013-14 season" is on a par with "Dracula's Happiest Girlfriend", "Megadeth's Most Soothing Lullaby", "Vladimir Putin's Most Trustworthy Pledge", or "Graeme Smith's Most Elegant Cover Drive".
The thorny issue of the new appointment of a new head coach remains distractingly prickly. Ashley Giles' results have done nothing to support his candidacy. He may be viewed as the safe option, but his appointment would be an enormous risk. As, you might argue, would the appointment of any of the other candidates. Whoever is rewarded/punished with the job will have to deal with the ongoing reverberations of the five-month cricketing trauma the England team has just endured, in which a handful of barely visible diamonds have struggled to glisten in an alarmingly mountainous dung heap of underachievement. It will be a fascinating summer.
In media interviews concerning his potential employment as England coach, Giles pledged a "carrot-and-stick" approach. Ironically, the carrot and stick were the two implements that England appeared to be batting with on Monday, as their winter of discontent reached a barely believable nadir of uselessness. Since their humbling by Sri Lanka, Netherlands have played some excellent cricket, and challenged both New Zealand and South Africa. Losing to them is clearly no disgrace. But folding like an agoraphobic deckchair was a suitably dismal way to conclude what has been one of the most comprehensive, wide-ranging single-season failures in the history of cricket, perhaps even in the history of top-level sport.
Why are England copping so much incendiary flak for their performance against Netherlands, a team who had challenged both New Zealand and South Africa hard? Commentators, journalists and minority-interest comedian-bloggers are far too eager to pass judgement. The fact is that England already knew that they could not qualify for the semi-finals. Their 88 all out was perfectly pitched to keep their net run-rate figure fractionally ahead of the Dutch. Thus, fourth place in the group was heroically secured, an achievement that no one can ever take away from this proud cricketing nation. Furthermore, the previous day, Australia had slunk out of the tournament with a total of 86 all out. You could, therefore, understand the nerves afflicting the England players as the target of 87 loomed. They stumbled over the line, overcoming the Baggy-Screen score and sparking scenes of wild celebration across England, before concluding their winter by playing to the crowd with a final slapstick run-out, having gained glorious numerical vengeance for their 5-0 Ashes galumphing. (I write this before Australia's final innings of the tournament. But still, 88-86. What a win.)
It was an extremely touching gesture by New Zealand to perform an homage to English batsmanship in their crucial quasi-quarter-final against Sri Lanka. Imitation, the saying goes, is the sincerest form of flattery, if not, in this case, the most tactically productive, and for the Kiwis to pay such a pitch-perfect tribute to England - rabid uncertainty against the turning ball, festooned with a couple of pre-school-level run-outs - even at the expense of their own tournament aspirations, speaks volumes for the regard in which they hold the founding fatherland of cricket.
New Zealand, who, as often in major tournaments, sporadically looked like potential winners, gave the cricket world a peerless object lesson in how not to play spin bowling. The conventional, old-school wiles of Rangana Herath, looping tempters lobbed onto a length, were the principal source of pain, aided by Sachithra Senanayeke's more 21st-century stylings. Between them, they took seven wickets for six runs in 6.3 overs; New Zealand's other two wickets fell to run-outs from balls bowled by Herath, so, in total, the Kiwis managed to mini-amass 6 for 9 from the 39 balls they received from Sri Lanka's spinners, a performance described as "a bit of a disappointment" by the New Zealand government's Ministry For Understatemenets.
The four runs micro-harvested by New Zealand's Nos. 3 to 7 constitute the fewest scored by those positions in any T20 innings in which all five of those batsmen have batted (and the 11 runs nano-stockpiled by their Nos. 3 to 10 was also an contra-record, thrashing the previous low of 17).
England's one consolation in their World T20 humiliation was that Australia fared equally badly. Clearly, playing a World T20 so soon after an Ashes series is unsustainable for both sides, just as playing a 50-over World Cup directly after a five-Test squabble for the urn proved completely impossible for both England and 1999, 2003 and 2007 world champions Australia.
The Ashes calendar must therefore, unarguably, be re-re-adjusted to ensure that this limited-overs dessert is never again served so soon after such a filling five-day feast. I suggest that additional Ashes series are therefore scheduled for 2014, 2014-15, 2016, 2016-17, and 2017. Purely to protect the players. Any additional income would be entirely incidental, and given to charitable causes, such as The Bob Willis Trust For Exhausted Commentators, The Rudi Koertzen Foundation For Slowly-Raised Index Fingers, and The Barmy British Legion, a terrific organisation that assists veteran travelling England supporters.
Some more Sri Lanka Spin Stats:
1. Herath's 5 for 3 was the cheapest five-wicket haul in all T20 history, undercutting the five runs conceded by Anil Kumble (5 for 5, RCB v Royals, 2009), Arul Suppiah (6 for 5, Somerset v Glamorgan, 2011) and Delorn Johnson (5 for 5, Windwards v Barbados, 2011-2012).
2. It was also Herath's first five-wicket haul in any limited-overs match, international or domestic, in 50-over or 20-over cricket (he has taken 17 in Tests, and 35 more in first-class games).
3. Herath and Senanayake were the third and fourth bowlers in T20 international history (if the term "history" can apply to something that is still in its first decade of existence) to bowl more than two overs with an economy rates no more than one run per over. Bhuvneshwar Kumar bowled three wicketless overs for just three runs against West Indies on March 23; prior to this tournament, the only instance was when Ireland's Alex Cusack took 3 for 2 off 3 against Kenya in a WT20 qualifier in 2008.
4. This was the first time in all T20 cricket that two bowlers in the same innings have bowled more than 12 balls each at an economy rate of less than or equal to one run per over.
Lasith Malinga captained Sri Lanka for the first time, and proceeded to defend a meagre target of 120 with a considerable margin to spare. T20 captain Dinesh Chandimal will, presumably, return for the semi-final, and it is entirely conceivable that Malinga will end his distinguished international career (a) without having ever skippered his country again, and (b) with an unimpeachable record and a reputation as a tactical genius for defending small totals.
Alongside him in the field were four previous Sri Lankan captains (Jayawardene, Sangakkara, Dilshan and Mathews) with a combined total of 350 matches' worth of international leadership experience. Between them, they had skippered Sri Lanka in the field for a total of 21,805 overs - that equates to approximately eight months of captaining, every day for seven hours a day.
This probably explains why Malinga was not the most obviously domineering captain, and why Jayawardene (183-time skipper) was doing an awful lot of pointing, waving and shouting for someone who definitely was not captain.