England’s chances of saving the Test series in India have disappeared. In truth, they were probably non-existent even before the toss in Rajkot, but for large parts of the first three matches, and even the early skirmishes of the fourth, Alastair Cook’s side competed more than predicted. India’s relentless water torture spinners and fluid captain eventually drowned them, but the tourists — for all their good passages of play — also went about nuking themselves in the foot with some of their own strategies and fielding.
James Anderson spoke rather boldly about Kohli’s alleged pace deficiencies being covered up by slow Indian pitches. We must wait to see if he still has a point, but perhaps England should be more concerned about flaws of their own. Flaws such as buttery fingers, a middle-order exhausted by keeping and bowling, stodgy captaincy and the tendency to pick an unbalanced attack.
So with just a dead rubber Test to go, English supporters now have to look to the ODI leg of the tour for solace. They can do so while experiencing a relatively novel feeling: genuine excitement at the cricket their side plays (if not absolute unbridled confidence at the potential results). Even during their brief stay at the top of the ODI rankings several years back, few England fans felt moved by their team’s still-rather-dour approach. In 2016, although they may not conquer Dhoni’s men in the upcoming series, they will at least attempt to do so in a positive manner, an outlook in contrast to the stuttering conservatism of the previous quarter century.
England’s progress from limited-over Luddites to one of the most thrilling teams in the world features in a recently published book, 28 Days’ Data, the title a horrified reference to the team’s brief stay in the 2015 World Cup and coach Peter Moores’ apocryphal quote about number-crunching. Penned by journalists Peter Miller and Dave Tickner, the pair forensically examine how England have contrived to embarrass themselves at so many global tournaments. Given the length and breadth of these failures, there is a huge amount of raw data to interpret, but the authors do so with dry wit, perceptive analysis and a great deal of head-banging exasperation. England’s is a deep-rooted problem, with their aversion to the glittery, showy perversions of the shorter forms neatly summarised in the prologue:
“England failing to get limited-overs cricket is nothing new. Of all the people we spoke to for this project, not one felt England have focused on one-day cricket. Some were more forthright than others, but the message was the same. Tests are best.”
The players Miller and Tickner managed to interview are indeed very candid. At times, damningly for their captains and managers, they seem as baffled as the authors by England’s various anachronistic and haphazard strategies. Phil Defreitas, a seaming all-rounder, recounts the time he was asked to bowl off-spin to the marauding Sri Lankans in the 1996 World Cup: “Funnily enough, the day before the quarter-finals we practised and I was trying to practise a few off-cutters, trying to practise change-ups like you do, and we spoke about it and we said we ‘might as well’ because we only had one spinner in the side.” It’s an amusing anecdote, but one indicative of how bizarrely amateurish England’s approach sometimes was, and laughably so for one of the game’s supposed superpowers.
The reader is guided through each of England’s last seven World Cup tournaments, from the high watermark of finalists in 1992 to the group stage exit debacle of 2015. What stands out is not how England have ever lacked the forward-thinking players required to compete in an ever evolving one-day game, but how often selectors lost their nerve and dropped them. A whole chapter is devoted to the short 14-month captaincy stint of Adam Hollioake, but necessarily so given how his success then ditching is emblematic of England’s sheepish attitude to ODIs. Having won the 1997 Sharjah tournament, beating a star-studded, Sachin Tendulkar-led India along the way, Hollioake and his innovative strategies were out of a job six months before the 1999 World Cup. England had once again stared progress square in the eye, only to run away screaming.
The book also skillfully places England’s private struggles within the context of the game’s broader issues, with India’s influence on the ODI format looming very large (including the nugget factoid that “the antecedents of limited overs can be found in the Indian province of Kerala in the 1950s”). Inevitably there is much discussion of the impact of the Indian Premier League and the England and Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB) failure to adapt to this brave new world of franchises and player purse power, and how their need to play catch-up with Lalit Modi led them into the sordid arms of Allen Stanford:
“As it became increasingly apparent that the cash-rich and superstar-packed IPL would be a massive success, England realised they were losing ground. The BCCI, Cricket Australia and Cricket South Africa had created a T20 Champions League that had secured a $900 million TV rights deal. England were allowed to send a side along, but they got no share of the profits. The T20 cash cow was being milked by someone else and the ECB couldn’t let that continue. Having decided not to deal with Modi and the IPL, the ECB needed to find a replacement and Stanford was the prime candidate.”
There is also considerable detail on India’s own ODI nadir, their (and Pakistan’s) early departure from the 2007 World Cup, when the money-spinning Super Six Stage was thrown into chaos despite the tournament being geared as far as possible towards avoiding upsets which would upset the financial apple cart:
“But Bangladesh toppled India, Ireland eliminated Pakistan, and the best-laid plans of organisers, teams and supporters were scuppered. Clearly, an error had been made. The World Cup format was dangerously vulnerable to precisely the sort of unpredictability and unexpected result that is literally the thing that lifts sport above other pursuits but which cricket does its best to engineer out of its big events. Ireland’s reward for their insurrection and cheek was to set off a chain of events making it far harder for them or anyone else to ever do anything so thrillingly unlikely or financially damaging again.” The passage is typical of the book’s style, entertainingly acerbic yet informative with one quality never over imposing on the other. The prose, unlike many an England power play in the era of Cook, Bell and Trott as a top three, sails along breezily.
28 Days’ Data might be a painful (though captivating) read for older, traumatised England supporters, but it is an absorbing one for cricket fans of all ages and countries. England’s glorious failures have benefitted many nations in world cricket and there are plenty of reminders here for fans across the globe of their own team’s landmark triumphs, from Wasim Akram’s absurd wizardry in the 1992 final to Kevin O’Brien’s “joyously destructive masterpiece” at the 2011 World Cup. England will face India in the forthcoming ODIs with a side packed full of vigour, aggression, limited over nous and another dollop of aggression. Regardless of the results, Miller and Tickner’s astute book leaves us in no doubt that this alone is a much overdue victory for English cricket fans.
28 Days’ Data is available from Amazon
Updated Date: Dec 15, 2016 19:40:00 IST