Having watched the English Rugby Team zealously extend their run of staggering incompetence, the next day I turned to Michael Vaughan and his colleagues in New Zealand to restore my flagging belief in English sporting prowess. While the Rugby team were doing their thing, the England Cricket team had been on a high, ripping through the New Zealand team in a way we haven’t seen for quite a while, leaving it all to play for on the last day – at last, proper Test Match Cricket.
I ended up watching most of the last day’s play from behind the sofa. It is really despairing when, one player excepted (Ian Bell), the whole of the team managed to put on such a display of concerted ineptitude, that you wonder what is really at the bottom of such a performance. There’s not a world-class player in the team (Yes, I know Pietersen was playing), but they can all hit the ball, and score runs. They were “only” playing New Zealand for goodness sake. The reason behind their abject display had to be something different. You could understand it if they’d gone down fighting, but it was a performance of resigned gutlessness, the like of which I haven’t seen for a long time.
Because the match ended so early on TV, there was a good deal of time to fill so Sky, in a move of exquisite cruelness, played a match by match recording of England winning the Ashes in 2005. Here we had many of the same people, Vaughan, Strauss, Harmison, Hoggard, Bell, Pietersen, playing cricket as if they believed themselves to be individually and corporately the best in the world, and completing (albeit just!) one of the most joyous sporting triumphs ever.
Yes, names like Trescothick, Flintoff, Giles, Simon Jones are not there anymore, but the chasm between the attitude in 2005, and the display in Hamilton on Sunday was enormous. On Sunday, even someone normally as positive as Pietersen seemed resigned to failure, offering all the reasons under the sun why the pitch, the opposition, the weather, anything he could think of actually, were all a bit too much to make a win at all possible. Perhaps the coach should stop all the techno-babble which pervades England’s game today, and sit them all down and force them to watch that Ashes film, and simply say – “That’s how you do it.”
As a complete contrast, look at how India, in a fascinating and compulsive series of Tests and One-Dayers in Australia along with Sri Lanka have grasped that particular nettle. They’ve had the bold foresight to pick a new captain in Dhoni, who has insisted on new blood in the team, binning several of the old-timers – but not you will note Tendulkar. He’s got the new boys picked, and has not hidden them away, but thrown them the ball and the bat, and said “Go on then- prove yourself”. And they have. The injection of youth has meant their fielding has improved enormously, and their batting has worked better than any of the opposition – the top 3 run scorers in the competition were all Indian, and in the bowlers they have found some great new stars.
The most exciting cricket of the summer occurred after watching Ponting, one of the World’s very best batsmen, losing out time and time again to Harbhajan, the Indian spinner. After a very acrimonious Test in Perth, either by fair means or foul Harbhajan was excluded from the next game. You could almost hear a palpable sigh of relief, the next time Ponting walked to the middle, knowing he couldn’t be dismissed by his bete-noir, only to face a new, raw, untested 19 year old fast bowler, Ishant Sharma. Sharma bowled 9 overs at him and, in the best spell of intelligent, aggressive fast bowling I have seen for ages, made Ponting look totally inadequate and decidedly second rate (which he isn’t), until falling victim to him. It was utterly compulsive viewing, and a real gem of a sporting moment.
As a contrast, we get two England senior fast bowlers, Hoggard and Harmision, who both start a Test Series woefully underprepared, and who both spectacularly fail to deliver. Quite what Ryan Sidebottom, who grabbed 10 wickets in the match thought about it must have thought about it is not known, but you could probably make a shrewd guess. All we heard in response from Harmison was he had stayed in England to be present for the birth of his fourth child – and the cricket came second.
These guys are on fancy contracts, which, if you believe the newspapers, means they are being paid £300-400k per year, before bonuses and sponsorship. I have no problem with sportsmen earning big bucks, but the deal is simple. You get the money, we get 100% of you, body and soul. If Harmison, who has already backed out of One Day cricket for England, wants to spend more time with his family, than he can go back to the county ranks and do precisely that. This is a man who, in the 2005 Ashes series reached No.1 in the world. Here he looked more like someone wanting to discuss his offspring's Knitting patterns, rather than someone looking to put the fear of God into Daniel Vettori’s men. Fast bowling is about attitude – look at the West Indians in their heyday, look at Lillie and Thompson, Trueman even – men who frightened you before you even got on the field.
Harmison’s time has gone. We need to take a leaf out of the Indian’s book, and at least put people in the side who want to give their all to play for the country. The next Ashes series is coming at us more quickly than you think, and we need a team with belief in themselves. You might get another Sidebottom – heaven knows we need one.
And I haven’t even got onto Kevin Pietersen yet!