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April 17, 2007
There are thrashings, there are wallopings and then there's what happened to England today. A year and a half after the triumphant open-top bus parade in Trafalgar Square, they were booed off as a wretched World Cup campaign was finally put out of its misery. A ruthless South African side won by nine wickets - or was it light years? When the Barmy Army break into "We're so shit it's unbelievable", you know things are bad.
"Hammered" was Michael Vaughan's summary. So England's winter ended as it began in the Champions Trophy. They took the first exit in that tournament, slithered to the second-ever Ashes whitewash, and are in serious danger of exiting the World Cup without beating a serious Test team.
In an achingly honest press conference afterwards, Vaughan admitted that, with the final rays of the Ashes afterglow fading, things have gone badly wrong, and not just in the World Cup. "It's a very sad day for English cricket," he said, admitting it was the first time he'd been booed off as an England player. "And rightfully so, given the performance we put in. I've been a supporter in a stadium and done exactly the same."
If England lose to West Indies on Sunday, this will be their worst World Cup since Michael Atherton's side limped out in 1996, a Cup Atherton described as "terrible". "I firmly believe that we've got a lot of talent in that dressing room," Vaughan said, more as accusation than excuse. "To lose 5-0 and to get knocked out of the World Cup in the circumstances we have, that's not good enough."
"We have to get English cricket back on track and understand why it's gone wrong and who's the best person to lead us forward." As regards one-day captaincy, he said, elliptically: "The grass isn't always greener - but sometimes it can be." There's not much breathing space for serious rethinking. The first Test against West Indies starts on May 16.
Even by England's recent low standards, this match was horrible. After setting out at an arthritic crawl they took 14 balls to nudge their first run to third man. By that stage in the second innings a rampant South Africa had 19. The only way back looked like South Africa being expelled for a breach of one of the ICC's interminable list of regulations ("size of sponsors logos on jockstraps?").
Once again, far too much pressure was heaped on Kevin Pietersen by sluggish openers. Vaughan said the strategy was to get through the first ten overs and then attack to look for "220 to 240". The South African innings - 157 for 1 in 19.2 overs, on course for a total of 400 - made nonsense of that. Graeme Smith walked all over England in a brutal 89 of Matthew Hayden-like bullying. In the 17th over Andrew Flintoff watched the ball disappear back past him for three successive masculinity-questioning straight fours. Ouch.
The repeated failures of the top order (opening stands of 1, 1, 10, 7 and 9 against the Test sides) have meant the classy breakdown recovery service of Pietersen and Paul Collingwood has been called out too often. Vaughan has failed to score for 73% of balls received in the first 15 overs. "My batting form has not been good at all in one-day cricket," he said. "My position in the team is hugely in doubt because of my batting. I still believe I'm a very good captain but people have to sit down and discuss my position."
Every other side has started with a dasher and England have badly missed Marcus Trescothick's oomph. For example, Habibul Bashar said he was the man the Bangladeshis most feared. Without Trescothick, England's safety-first approach has been as old-fashioned and stodgy as spotted dick and custard in a sushi bar. It was bizarre to see such an approach from the country with by far the most experience of the innovations of Twenty20 cricket. It says everything that the man to have come out of the World Cup best is one who wasn't even here.
"But I won't be retiring from one-day cricket," Vaughan said. "I'm not stupid enough to think it's not going to be an area of concern and talk over the next few days. The most important thing is that we have to get English cricket back on track. We need a strategy to move forward. Since 1992 England haven't produced any good one-day cricket. We need to know why."
Before that 1992 World Cup final against Pakistan, England won 54% of their one-day games. Since then they have managed 38% (excluding the minnows). Why? The Barmy Bugler perhaps caught it best when he mournfully trumpeted the refrain from the Bon Jovi hit Living on a Prayer.
England's stated aim was to have a stable team by this World Cup. In that they have clearly failed. Last year they used seven more players than the Australians in nine fewer games. When asked about England's one-day malaise, both Andrew Hall and Smith thrust home the importance of playing lots together, and working out clear roles. England didn't give themselves the best chance.
This is not helped by using the one-day side as a test bed for young bowlers. In many ways it is a tougher environment than Tests, as Andrew Strauss has pointed out. There is nowhere to hide, you have to bowl.
And perhaps there's the rub. Vaughan called this a "massive" tournament but there is no doubt some players value Tests more. Steve Harmison didn't retire from Tests to concentrate on one-dayers. "I haven't really talked about the limited-overs game in any great depth," Nasser Hussain said in his autobiography, "because it has never meant as much to me as Test cricket."
In an excellent recent piece in The Wisden Cricketer, Lawrence Booth pointed out that the ranks of the Barmy Army thin out when England change into their pyjamas and that most of the main newspaper correspondents fly home. Deep in the English cricket psyche, we still see one-day cricket as a necessary inconvenience. Perhaps we get the one-day team we deserve.
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