Friday, December 02, 2005

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

Cricinfo's new blog, Different Strokes, contains a piece about the current travails of the England team in Pakistan - pointing out, quite rightly, the benefits that England received in the series, in particular the injury to Glenn McGrath and the poor form of the Australian side. (I would, however, argue that not all the umpiring decisions went England's way - take the dismissals of Pietersen and Bell in the Edgbaston Test. Neither were out, and any more runs and England's victory would probably have been far more comfortable).

The point on which I wanted to comment was made in the comments box, where it was argued that "you do not become world champion simply by beating the world champions once". Cricket is the only sport I can think of where this truly is the case. Football and rugby, for example, decide their world champions with a knockout competition. The best team in the world in cricket, for all the ICC rankings and the four-yearly "World Cup" is, in all reality, decided by a consensus of fans and media, based on results.

This, I think, is the genius of world cricket - for it keeps each series a notable event in many ways, whereas international competition in many other sports is devalued because teams are preparing for a major tournament. Sure, England and other teams may base their preparation around a series against Australia being on the horizon, but if you take your eye off the ball, then your preparations are going to be shattered by a better team and an exploitation of your self-confidence. The only way to be considered the consensus best team in the world is to win, continuously. That makes consistent performance vital, not just a flash-in-the-pan period of brilliance or a well-timed peak.

So, where did it all go wrong for England? Well, the first question must be made of Fletcher's preparations. Pakistan may not be the best place for teams to be touring at the moment (as sad as it is, they are obvious terrorist targets), and the problems are undoubtedly compounded if a team is English. Yet Clive Woodward was lambasted for not having enough preparatory games on his Lions tour; the same must be said of Duncan Fletcher in Pakistan. A 14-a-side game and one serious three-day match just isn't enough to prepare a team in subcontinental conditions. For the spinners, it takes time to adjust to the lack of bounce provided by pitches; for bowlers, it is crucial to realise that air speed and swing is as important as pace much of the time. And the dead pitches are totally different to bat on, too. The England team were asked to compete with insufficient preparation. So any attempts to write it off as being "difficult to play in the subcontinent" aren't good enough.

Of course, England haven't had the best luck with injuries. One of their 90-mph bowlers, and a devastating reverse-swing exponent to boot, got crocked and missed the tour. Their captain (if my verdict on his captaincy isn't great) got injured, and there isn't real quality cover available at the moment. But that doesn't explain the abject performance of the team, especially their collapse in the First Test. My fear is that the team had the mental toughness to beat Australia, but has lost that fortitude for a "weaker" challenge. If that's the case, it's worrying. I just hope that the difficulty of playing in India makes England rise to the challenge once again.