Saturday, December 03, 2005

Cricket: Pakistan 2-0 England

THE BEAUTIFUL GAME

Scorecards: First Test (Pakistan won by 22 runs), Second Test (Match drawn), Third Test (Pakistan won by an innings and 100 runs).

Fuck.

Fucking fuck.

Fuck fuckity fuck-fuck-fuck.

Read and weep, English supporters. Those who like me coasted high on the wave of legal euphoria engendered by the brilliant 2-1 win over Australia this last summer, taste now the bitter dust of failure and humiliation.

As Matthew Syed has pointed out, we've been here before: the Rugby World Cup (being Welsh, I was able to sit that one out), Kelly Holmes, Mark Lewis-Francis... Sporting success, triumph, exhilaration, followed by the good old British crash into disaster. Thank goodness we didn't follow the same principle when we fought the Battle of Britain, or we'd all be speaking German now (and we'd have a woman Prime Minister again...).

Where did it go wrong? We've been discussing this matter over at TMS 24/7 for a good few hours, and several theories (all of them plausible) have been put forward:

  1. Complacency after the Ashes - we'd just beaten the best team in the world, so we could beat anyone, couldn't we?

  2. Conditions in Pakistan, supposedly notoriously difficult for Western visitors

  3. The Kookaburra ball, used in Pakistan, which does not swing as much as the Duke ball used in England

  4. Pakistan coming together as a unit (under an English coach, who had a successful career for England, and knows the English mindset better than most)

  5. England's inability to adjust the match-winning strategy and approach that worked so well in an English summer to playing conditions elsewhere

  6. The toll of injuries: Simon Jones, Vaughan, Giles...

  7. Off-field distractions: Strauss's imminent fatherhood, Tresco's father-in-law's near-fatal accident, Harmison's homesickness (apparently successfully conquered)

  8. Hubris (see top of list)

  9. Just having several off-days in a row

  10. The possibility that England are not all that good really and that the Ashes were lost by Australia rather than won by England (this is the explanation favoured by Australians and not one I adhere to).

Those who care about this sort of thing should click 'More'.
I still favour the complacency argument above everything else. English cricket has been on an upward curve since we held the South Africans to a draw in 2003 (some would argue the upswing began even earlier than that, during Hussain's tenure as captain, though we could hardly have gone lower than the depths we plumbed in 1999). Nothing matters more to English cricket fans - and possibly to the management - than capturing the Ashes, after we had watched the Australians thrash us year after year. The grand effort, the determination to make England an unbeatable side, was all geared towards the recapture of that little urn. We'd all assumed this would happen in 2007, when McGrath and Warne had retired, rich and lazy on the back of an unbeaten Ashes run dating back to 1993 when they made their debuts. As things turned out, the Australians had a rotten tour this summer, several key players failed to fire (Gilchrist, Gillespie, Hayden, Kasprowicz), England played to the last drop of their determination, and the Ashes were recaptured ahead of schedule. After the triumph of the summer, where was there to go but down? What did England have to prove?

In the old days, being Number One team in the world was a matter of subjective judgement. Once the ICC introduced its ranking system, the question was academic - Australia had been at the top for so long, that it was only a question of who was going to challenge for the Number Two spot. England used to measure their success in terms of Ashes victories, and everything else was regarded as a staging post on the way to the bi-annual contest of the ancient enemies.

This year, things changed. The Ashes victory was so unexpected, the impact of the against-the-odds achievement so deep, the self-belief of the team so strong, that suddenly there was a greater prize to aim for: Number One Team in the World. Never mind that the No. 1 spot was held by a team which had dominated the game for over twelve years and had a depth and strength almost never before seen in the history of the game. Suddenly everyone was gripped by this fantastic (and, in retrospect, insane) conviction that England not only deserved that spot but could achieve it instantly. The fact that Australia had built up gradually from a low base was overlooked. We had supermen in the team, didn't we? Flintoff could do anything. Pietersen could take attacks apart. Tresco and Strauss were the best opening partnership in the world. Our four-man pace attack were a perfect unit, worthy of comparison with their West Indian equivalents of the seventies. We had the best captain we'd had in twenty years, a man who could get into the side on the strength of his captaincy alone (and what a mixed blessing that now seems!).

This image starts to collapse the moment it comes under serious scrutiny (Flintoff is a better bowler than batsman; Pietersen's brilliance is usually overshadowed by rashness; Tresco and Strauss are fantastic when they're firing at the same time, like they did back in Durban on the South African tour, but Tresco often fails to start and Strauss looks nervous at the crease a lot of the time; the four-man pace attack was one short for the Pakistan tour and the wickets were dead, lifeless affairs with no swing in the atmosphere; Vaughan's batting is a liability). The Pakistan tour showed all those shortcomings - in fact, it's ironic that the players who performed best on this tour are those who under-performed in the Ashes: Ian Bell, Paul Collingwood, Geraint Jones (we'll not talk about the spinners).

What this 2-0 fiasco has exposed is that England are not (at least away from home) the powerful colossus they aspire to be - and, let's face it, Australia have set the bar incredibly high. The batting is still weak - there is no one player around whom an innings can be built. Pakistan have a powerful and almost impregnable middle order (Mohammad Yousuf, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Younis Khan) who can pretty much be guaranteed between them to produce a massive partnership. Other teams have similar strengths: India (Dravid, Tendulkar, Sehwag), Australia (Hayden, Ponting, Gilchrist), even West Indies (Lara, Chanderpaul, Sarwan). South Africa are going through a period of rebuilding their middle order, and Sri Lanka seem to change their line-up with the weather. England's middle order, though impressive, does not convey an impression of solidity: Vaughan's form is hopeless, Bell is inexperienced (but could well prove to be the linchpin in future years), Pietersen and Flintoff too inconsistent and liable to get out to rash shots. If Tresco and Strauss fail to give the innings a grand launching pad, there is no one available for back-up.

As for the bowling, we badly missed Simon Jones (although there is no guarantee he would have made enough of a difference to save the two lost matches). Even if the pace attack is on form and has helpful wickets to bowl on, however, there is still an embarrassing shortcoming in the spin department: Giles is effective on helpful pitches (ie in England), but fairly innocuous elsewhere, his hip is creaking and he has no real back-up (Udal proved his ineffectiveness in these matches, Loudon's doosra is not yet developed, Batty is one of the worst players ever to don an England shirt, and other potential players - Panesar, Lawson, Swann, Keedy - remain untested).

And let's not take anything away from Pakistan - they had a great series. Inzamam's batting proved unassailable (he passed fifty in every single innings), Salman Butt proved to be a much greater opener than anyone had given him credit for, Kamral Akmal was often brilliant behind the stumps (and even in front of them), and Shoaib Akhtar finally repaid the faith placed in him by, for once, staying fit, focused and collaborative throughout an entire series. Bob Woolmer no doubt deserves a lot of credit for bringing the team together, but the talent has to be there in the first place - it makes one wonder whether Pakistan would now be challenging for the Number Two spot if only they'd had a sense of discipline and application in previous years.

Where do England go from here? Let's not talk about the one-day matches: they are Pakistan's to lose, all of them. In March, England and India fight it out for the Number Two spot. The Test matches are taking place in obscure grounds (two of the three, anyway). The weather will be hot, the surfaces possibly variable. India have a strong batting line-up and two of the world's deadliest spin bowlers. England will have been to the sub-continent, back to a freezing home for Christmas, then returning to the dry heat of Southern Asia. There are, again, only two warm-up matches. The entire tour schedule is still under negotiation. I'm not sure Mrs Flintoff isn't due to give birth around then, as well. The immediate prospect for English cricket doesn't look as good as it did twelve months ago.

This is not to say that failure is inevitable, only that expectations have to change and that we should be looking to the long term. With Australia facing the likelihood that most of its key players will retire in the next few years, the field for 2008 onwards should start to open up. If England are still showing the same form then, they have a good chance at claiming that new prize of World Number One.

I was in Marks & Spencer yesterday, where a TV was showing highlights of the Ashes. While noting the obvious irony, it still lifted my heart to watch Tresco and Strauss flogging them around the ground. That's what it might be like watching England three or four years from now. Don't hold your breath - but do cross your fingers.

2 Comments:

Blogger MuppetLord said...

Hmm...only the best in the world when you beat the rest of the world. Perhaps it was one of those things.

p.s. your browser doesn't work with Opera 8.

6:50 pm  
Blogger Gary said...

Croeso. Didn't realise you were Welsh as well Oscar.

Although I think Wales are just as guilty. Look at our form over the autumn test compared with the Six Nations...

9:53 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home