Sport is a strange beast.
Stripped down to a bare level most sports have a pretty silly premise. From 22 people kicking around an air pocket, to a man chucking a small red ball at three bits of wood 22 yards away while another bloke tries to smack it as hard as he can, the worlds favourite past times are nothing if not quirky. It comes as a surprise to non sports fans that some people place great importance on such things; from supporters to participants, there is a major emotional investment into something so banal. Therein though lies the beauty of sport. Whether doing it for yourself, supporting your nation or just selecting the team in your favourite colour, we humans love competitiveness in any stupid format. So much so in fact that we often let our emotions and adrenaline get in the way of rational thought when dealing with those we are passionate about. With this in mind, I took an impassive look at the current state of English cricket.
Let’s not beat about the bush here, English cricket has gone through an absolutely shocking 9 months or so. Since Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell so nearly made it a 4 – 0 Ashes triumph at the Oval in September, things have gone from bad to worse for Cook and his boys. A 5 – 0 demolition back in Australia against the oldest enemy and horrendous one day defeats against the same opposition; final wicket partnerships and English collapses snatching defeat from the jaws of certain victories. The coach that got us to number 1 in the world resigned, our best batsman sacked, our most resilient batsman retired ill and our best bowler (the best spinner in world cricket) retired injured.
Add to that an embarrassing defeat, nay capitulation, to the Dutch in the T20 world cup and a first ever home series loss to Sri Lanka, the latter when we had a 100+ run lead after the first innings of the decider, and it is plain to see the headlines to England’s current problems. When looking at it like that, with the appointment of previous failed coaches, a new director of cricket who seems so out of his depth he needs armbands and a captain so bereft of form and apparent ideas it is not too big a stretch to surmise he has cost us this latest test series, it is easy to see why Giles Clarke was asked if English cricket was currently at its lowest ebb.
Certainly as a supporter the anger and disenchantment you feel at some of the performances, captaincy and decisions of the management in terms of personnel has certainly made it feel like the worst period to be an England cricket fan. With the raw emotion of defeat manifesting itself in the new world of social media – growing exponentially on this volatile medium – even the most mild-mannered of cricket followers are asking serious questions of Cook’s captaincy and the ECB’s decision makers. Indeed, at close of play on day four of the Headingley test, with England a pitiful 57/5 against an average Sri Lankan bowling attack, chasing an impossible 350 for victory, there was not a soul on this earth who did not think Alistair Cook was under severe pressure and in a position that was swiftly edging towards untenable.
However something happened. Cook rallied his troops and the players, showing the mental toughness and resolve that had so often deserted them recently, put in an almighty effort to nearly do the impossible and save the test match. The fact that they ultimately ended up losing with the penultimate ball of the game probably helped the feeling of sympathy rather than hate towards Cook and his team – Jimmy Anderson in tears during his post match interview exemplified this. It showed even the most seasoned of professionals care deeply about this unit of players – something that resonates with fans like nothing else, ‘they’ share our emotion.
The bottom line is still that England lose an entire home series to Sri Lanka for the first time ever. This is hot on the back of that Ashes and World T20 debacle, yet it doesn’t quite feel like New Zealand in ’99 or the many Ashes defeats from ’89 onwards – the fighting spirit and positivity of that 5th day in Leeds is just one of many bright spots for England since the end of a truly awful winter.
This is a side in transition, senior players have retired, rested or been sacked and since that Sydney test (inclusive) we have had 6 debutants and one returnee from the international wilderness. Within those matches we have seen us beat the eventual T20 champions, the best ever one day innings by an Englishman (a wicket keeper at that), test match hundreds for three of the new players, a resurgent Liam Plunkett bowling with pace and accuracy, a test match hat trick for Stuart Broad, Jimmy Anderson swinging the new ball at Lords more than he has done since Trent Bridge last summer and the return to form of Joe Root with a double hundred.
Yes it has been disappointing, yes at times senior bowlers have let us down, Cook’s captaincy has been conservative at best, match losing at worst, and the captain’s form is nothing short of abysmal. Wisden in years to come will show we have gone 8 tests without a win but there is something there, enough silver linings trying to break through this juggernaut of a cloud to make you feel this is far from England’s lowest ebb. Without wanting to bow to the sound byte of an ECB bigwig, this IS a transitional period for English cricket and while I do not personally think Cook and Moores have the required skills to be the best in the world at their respective roles, there are currently not many alternatives that scream out they are any better in the English game.
Once you take the raw emotion and anger of a supporter out of it and look beyond the results, there are enough positives mentioned above, enough fantastic individual performances since Sydney (with Ben Stokes to chuck in there too) for us to be able to look forward with more than the slightest bit of optimism for the future. Cook undoubtedly needs to get his form back and the new ball bowlers need to find their consistency as attack leaders. Monty needs to sort his head out or another front line spinner needs to step up to the plate but if all these things come together, along with the development of England’s young lions, then next summer’s Ashes series may not be the daunting prospect many will be fearing.
England’s last day fight and Jimmy’s emotion showed, ironically, that if you take the raw emotion of being a supporter out of it, this England side is still hungry, still determined, still behind the captain 100% and still not far from being a very good cricket team.
Low ebb? What low ebb?