This was a salutary defeat. This, surely, is the end for psychobabble and over-professionalism, a full stop to mark the end of overcoaching and joylessly prescriptive planning. It is time for England’s cricketers to put bat to ball, to react to the situation and not genuflect to the tactics manual. It is time to play once again. If this is what you get after six months of dedicated planning, then less planning sounds good to me.
Here is one possible summary of this disastrous World Cup: “They found ever more stones to upturn, each less relevant than the last. Lauded for their professionalism, they snuffed out the last glimpses of play (from a game, let’s remember) . . . The resulting atmosphere: anxious, dutiful, earnest, fearful and highly professional. Too little in evidence: fun, naturalness, mischief, adventure, lightness, wit and maverick independence.”
Only it was written in prospect, not retrospect – by me, in this very space, 13 months ago. Since then, the same script has played out in full. Now, please, for the change.
New errors have been added, it is true. When England sacked Alastair Cook as one-day captain at the eleventh hour, it was almost universally praised as the right decision. I disagreed. There is a time when you’ve thrown your lot in with someone, and for this World Cup England had done that with Cook.
In seeking to avoid one problem – Cook’s batting form – they ended up creating two problems. The discarded Cook, back at home, is deeply hurt. Eoin Morgan, adrift in totally uncharted waters as captain, may end up feeling he has been used. The adjectives “streetwise” and “positive” were hopeful to the point of neglectful naivety. If opting for Morgan was a sop to media pressure, it was disgraceful.
Selection was a shambles. On the eve of the opening game, they abandoned one of the few things that was working – the form of James Taylor at number three. Instead, Gary Ballance was plucked from the subs’ bench. He is now needlessly scarred by having played in an ill-fated World Cup for which he had little preparation.
It is impossible not to feel sorry for Morgan, especially as his native Ireland have played much better than England at the World Cup. Morgan, like Ed Joyce before him, pursued a career as an England player because Ireland are held back by a lack of fixtures and opportunities. Watching a revitalised Joyce – now back in Irish green – chalk up elegant runs for his home team, it’s obvious how deeply he cares about the cricketing culture that produced him. You now wonder how Morgan, who may be tempted by the life of a roving Twenty20 specialist, will react to this bruising World Cup experience.
Having invented T20, England have engineered a situation where they squandered the advantages of being the pioneer. The best T20 leagues are the Indian Premier League and Australia’s Big Bash League. It is simply impossible to produce cricket at that level in a league of 18 counties – the talent is diluted too weakly. Everyone knows this is a fact. When we shared a dressing room at Middlesex in 2008, I saw Morgan shake his head in disbelief at the ECB’s refusal to set a franchise-based T20 league. He was right.
There is a brain drain in English cricket. The better thinkers rarely return to the game, whether as coaches or as administrators. After the defeat, viewers watched Andrew Strauss, Mike Atherton and Nasser Hussain, three thoughtful former England captains, dissect the performance. Forgive my hypocrisy, but it seems a shame that the media are almost universally considered far more attractive than the coalface.
The pull of television is compounded by the push of the county grind. Top Australian ex-players such as Justin Langer, Stuart Law and Darren Lehmann have all recently coached at state level in Australia. It is much rarer for people of such distinction to enter coaching in county cricket. The prospect of a never-ending road trip around 18 counties works against recruiting top talent. When Peter Moores was reappointed as England coach a year ago, the striking feature was the unspectacular quality of the shortlist. Moores is a decent, hard-working enthusiast, probably the best of his type. It remains very unclear that his type is good enough.
There is a saying in the military that generals are helplessly conditioned to fight the previous war. In the same way, English cricket is dangerously obsessed with the Ashes. That is because between 1986 and 2005 we never won an Ashes series. Disappointment produced myopia. The Ashes remains a money-spinner and a crowd-pleaser, but it cannot prop up our whole game for ever. One-day cricket is treated like an inferior side issue. The Ashes, like all great brands, will mask the underlying cultural decline for a long time but it can’t bail out the whole English game indefinitely.
To some extent, coaches and captains, tactics and selection, are all beside the point. England have been a poor one-day team for years. They have remained poor. All that has happened is, the rest of the cricketing world has evolved, becoming more creative, expressive, exuberant and attacking. Plodding England used to be able to hang around, never leading at one-day cricket but just about within reach. No longer. The question is not how we can compete with Australia and New Zealand (out of sight) but how we might learn from Bangladesh. It is a galling fact that the fastest and most exciting bowler on Monday was Bangladeshi.
Cricket’s place in the wider sporting culture is under grave threat. There is no cricket on free-to-air television; there is a leadership deficit, too many tracksuited clichés, a lack of critical thinking and independent thought. England are still, thanks to satellite television, cash-rich. By every other measure, they are looking bankrupt.