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Rob Smyth: Time for England to get real

July 22nd, 2008 by Rob Smyth in England, South Africa in England, Test cricket and tagged , , , , , ,

When an alarm goes off, the idea is that it should be as shrill and jolting as possible. England could certainly not complain on that score after their thrashing at Headingley. They had been sleepwalking through the past year, naively assuming that a few blundering victories over an appalling New Zealand side meant that everything was OK with the world. Darren Pattinson might yet prove useful, because the roof has caved in on those cosy assumption of progress. England can surely live in denial no longer after South Africa coolly took them apart in the second Test.

Until Stuart Broad’s charming cameo, England were on course for their first innings defeat at home since the Lord’s Test of 2003 against South Africa, Michael Vaughan’s first as captain. That felt apt, because they are right back where they started. Everything went wrong here. The return of Andrew Flintoff, apparently the final piece of the jigsaw, instead scattered the other pieces all over the place; despite bowling very well, Flintoff played in his seventh consecutive Test defeat. He is less talisman and more curse.

The selectors, for their part, broke new ground by making a serious of peculiar decisions before rather than after a heavy defeat. It may have been the first-ever case of proactive panic. The last time England went 1-0 down to South Africa, in 2003, they responded by raiding county cricket for Ed Smith, James Kirtley and Glen Chapple. This time they are likely to stick with what they know, replacing Pattinson with Ryan Sidebottom and leaving it at that. But they would be wrong to do so.

While England have undeniably got worse under Peter Moores, who has yet to win a Test against decent opposition in eight Tests, it is not entirely his fault. England have been muddling along ever since the side was gutted in the winter of 2005-06, winning only one series against a decent opponent (Pakistan in 2006). Something significant has to change. The side has been through so much failure together that any amateur psychologist will tell you it is going to be difficult for them to penetrate the walls that have built up.

That particularly applies to the batting line-up, which looks more like the England football midfield every day. Like them, they are almost certainly the best of their kind in the country on an individual basis; like them, that is rendered irrelevant by their inability to function collectively. As with the football, England have tried various tactical options - Vaughan opening or at No3, Strauss likewise, Bell everywhere in the middle order - but none of them have worked.

They are one-paced, a huge flaw in the modern game, where the psychological battle is as acute as ever, and the opposite of the fearless initiative-seizing of the 2004-05 side; they are unable to function together and, worst of all, collectively and individually pusillanimous. Watching Flintoff grind his way through a 95-ball 38 yesterday, however worthy and understandable in the context of his need to learn how to bat all over again, was profoundly depressing and in complete contrast to the psychologically significant 146-ball 142 he flogged in the face of similarly inevitable defeat at Lord’s in 2003. Only Broad went down fighting. He’ll soon learn that this isn’t how we do things round here.

There is a desperate need for new blood, for impetus and freshness. Two candidates stand out: Joe Denly and Ravi Bopara, both blessed with a rich talent and, just as importantly, a cheeky-chappy swagger. Even Luke Wright, who averaged 49.57 with the bat in first-class cricket last year and 42.75 so far this season, could be an option. None of the top five have done quite badly enough to be dropped with the clearest conscience, but then nor had, say, Graham Thorpe in 2005 or Matthew Hoggard earlier this year. Sometimes, tough decisions need to be made.

Alastair Cook’s average is plummeting through the forties; Andrew Strauss’s reincarnation still does not wholly convince; Ian Bell failed under the most extreme pressure yesterday. Having two stonewallers at the top of the order is at least one too many in the modern game. Having Tim Ambrose at No6, when he looked out of his element at No7, is an absurd flight of fancy. It’s time for England to get real.

Rob Smyth is a freelance journalist. Rob is part of a group running 10 miles (which is 9.9 more than he’s ever run before) for the Laurie Engel Fund in London on August 31. To sponsor him, click here; to read why he’s doing it, click here; or to join in the run, email Rob.

Posted in England, South Africa in England, Test cricket | 27 Comments »

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