The article first appeared on The Huffington Post (UK) here
It would have been okay if it were just about losing a test match to India at Lords Cricket Ground after 28 years. What should worry the mandarins of the game in its country of birth, however, is the complete lack of purpose and direction of the current team.
Saddled with a captain who is trying to stay put on a slippery slope, the current English team represents everything opposite to the adrenaline-pumping romance of the ‘class of 2005’ that beat the mighty Australians – in what was clearly the best Ashes series of this century, and one of the best series played between any two teams of all times.
Is Moeen Ali the best spinner that England has got – in a series involving the master players of spin no less? If yes, then they might as well play with no spinners, at least against India. But then, he is actually a batsman too. So, is he a middle-order batsman who can either single-handedly save or win the match for England?
And Ben Stokes? If he were into playing cards, three ducks together might have been a good dig. Or, wait; is he in the team for his bowling? Some say he can be a poor man’s Paul Collingwood. Is that the vision?
Similarly, was Michael Atherton right in saying that “a significant English career might have come to an end”, when Matt Prior departed after playing that rather aimless pull shot – of a ball way outside the off stump? Atherton didn’t even mention the 36 byes that Prior let slip through and about his gloves. Did the ECB anticipate such a development so early in the series?
At the beginning of the series, only the ECB and God knew the answers to all of those questions. Now, only God knows.
The point is not about the performance of those two. It may not even be about the approach of ECB towards filling those key slots. Because it would be safe to assume that the English board would not have any reason to go for these players but for the belief that that’s the best it has got.
That, I’m afraid, is the scarier part. There are three more tests to go. Senior pros like Anderson, Broad and Bell – and who knows, even Cook – can still crank up a notch and win something for the team.
But that would merely be putting a blanket over the less than adequate other half portion of the team.
How did things come to such a pass so drastically soon? Wasn’t this the number 1 test team till very recently?
There are either no easy answers or many obvious answers to every crisis question.
English cricket is not sure what it considers cricket! Though England won a T20 World Cup, it neither celebrated it (contrast it with the mind-numbing excess after India’s victory in the inaugural T20 WC), nor built upon it. The lesser said the better about its approach towards the 50-over version of the game. People here in India believe that England does not even want to play the shorter version. And no, the feeling has got nothing to do with the clash of boards about IPL.
But test cricket is its thing. And yet, it is letting itself down on that front too – primarily because of abysmal handling of players. So while a precocious talent like Pietersen is out “because of attitude problems”, players have been leaving the game because of psychological stress. No offence meant, but ask an Indian player what pressure is. Or closer home to English cricketers, ask what Wayne Rooney, John Terry feel like.
We are not even talking about the abrupt retirements of Strauss and Swann.
Where is the player management?
The immediate task for England is simple – do not allow India to win any more tests in the series, and win at least one for itself. However, the bigger challenge would be to prepare a team that wears its heart on its sleeve – just like in 2005. With or without import of talent from South Africa.
Unless Jim Laker would forever be proved correct for his words, “The aim of English cricket is, in fact, mainly to beat Australia.” In that case, be ready for MS Dhoni and his men heap further misery on this English team in the tests ahead.