Despite the very best efforts of the hype machine, this is not 2005. Retaining the Ashes, and don’t forget this is the first time in my cricket watching life that England have clung onto the prize in three successive series, was an oddly muted affair. Of course the Manchester rain ensured that the Australians were denied the opportunity to complete the deserved victory they needed to keep matters alive, but even that would have just delayed the inevitable. The problem is that the home side is simply better but is crumpling under the weight of its own negativity and siege mentality, while the visitors are winning the propaganda war, and the tactical manoeuvres, yet lack the resources on the frontline. Beating this lot is probably no big deal, but doing it in this manner is even less satisfying.
If the first Ashes Test teetered on a knife edge and the second turned out to be among the most one-sided in history, then there was at least a common thread which united them. Both were mired in umpiring controversies, the deconstruction of which filled column inches that ought to have been reserved for stylish straight drives or unplayable outswingers. The Decision Review System (DRS), an innovation designed to assist the match officials but one which has struggled for universal acceptance, absorbed much of the blame. The Luddites were called to arms once more. Such criticism is missing the point. Abandoning this aid will not stop television companies investing in new technologies to enhance their viewers’ enjoyment. Unless harnessed to the cause, these ultra-slow-motion replays, Hawkeye, Hot-Spot and whatever may supersede them, will only further undermine the integrity of those who have just their eyes to trust in. This easy target is a red herring obscuring a more significant problem.
If the young Essex leg spinner Tom Craddock achieves nothing else in his career, he’ll forever be able to dine out on having taken a five wicket haul against England. Alastair Cook’s team completed their Ashes preparations with a challenge game against his county side at Chelmsford, where their uncertainties against this type of bowling were once more rather awkwardly exposed. No doubt encouraged that a mere rookie could inflict such damage, Australia’s granting of citizenship to the Pakistani refugee Fawad Ahmed could not have come at a better time. He’s clearly no Shane Warne either but they probably figure he doesn’t need to be. Unfamiliarity has bred an unhealthy suspicion fuelled by the almost complete absence of these wristy wizards in the domestic game pretty much since the war. But wait, one such home-bred purveyor of the art, with international experience to boot, currently sits second in the national averages. Unfortunately, it’s the batting averages. Just maybe though, that’s a light at the end of the tunnel for Adil Rashid.
Will England ever win a 50 over global tournament? At Edgbaston yesterday the rabbits got stuck in the floodlights as the Champions Trophy tantalisingly called out to them. It was a gloomy day, and not just because of the weather. Just as in this final nine years ago, when the West Indies slipped off the hook, the home side choked. Older readers might reference the last match of the 1987 World Cup, Mike Gatting’s reverse sweep and all that. For India, victory sealed the deal in terms of their distinction in this form of the game. If this really is to be the end for this neat, compact competition, they provided it with a fitting send off.
I might be a bit old-fashioned but ask me which current England cricketer I’d most like to be able to bat like and I won’t say Kevin Pietersen. Of course his improvisations, his swagger, his ability to change the tempo of an innings, all of that would be wonderful, but I remember those black and white photographs in the MCC coaching manual, those strokes you used to practice in front of the mirror. There was no shuffling, whirling and flailing, just balance, economy of movement and sheer elegance as the ball was persuaded rather than coerced to the boundary. As much as power can take the breath away, finesse is what the game is all about. And the player who most often has me purring with admiration is not KP, but Ian Bell. The Warwickshire man is a master craftsman when in full flow, yet I’m concerned. Though I hate to say it, I have to be convinced he’s still worth his place.
Knowing it was close, I made sure I was installed in front of the television on the Friday afternoon of the first Test of the summer against New Zealand at Lord’s. When it arrived it was superficially unexceptional, a ball of decent length moving imperceptibly away from the right hander and catching the edge. It was gratefully clasped at second slip. We had seen it many times before. Except we hadn’t. This was a moment that had been glimpsed only four times in the whole rich history of English cricket. Jimmy Anderson’s celebration was nothing out of the ordinary. He even looked embarrassed. Perhaps he didn’t quite believe that he was joining a club so select that its only other members had become almost mythologised. And I had finally seen it. After thirty years of waiting another England bowler had reached the magic three hundred wickets.
So how to evaluate the Women’s Cricket World Cup? The first thing to say is that the tiresome preoccupation with comparing everything to the men’s game is both unhelpful and faintly ludicrous. Women’s cricket has just recently come to be taken anywhere approaching seriously. It is little more than a decade ago that it was still played in skirts. Funding and resources were almost non-existent prior to that and remain minimal. Opportunities for girls to play are being realised only gradually, and the fight against prejudice and mockery has a long way to go, in some parts of the globe more than others. So what if we didn’t see balls being hit out of the ground or anyone generating the pace of Dale Steyn? That we were able to enjoy the quality and drama that was on display is testimony to how far has been travelled in such a short time.
Test debutants come along so frequently these days that we often barely even notice. Throw in all the other forms of international cricket and it sometimes seems that everyone has represented his country in some game or another. If that suggests a certain devaluation of the honour, it is simply an inevitable consequence of the explosion of fixtures around the globe. So for someone to rise above this influx of new faces and grab your attention there needs to be a little more than just a barrage of sixes or a new mystery delivery. There must be substance, that indefinable quality suggesting the beginning of a journey which will lead to reverential mentions on the pages of musty old Wisdens. Joe Root has achieved nothing of note just yet, but I have a hunch that ambitions in that direction may not be misplaced.
Monty Panesar’s religion teaches that meditation is the path to enlightenment. There must have been times over the past few years when inner peace was difficult to achieve, understanding where it all went wrong beyond the comprehension of a humble soul. First lauded, then lambasted, cheered then chided, he was the headline act that became a footnote. There was always something of the rabbit in the headlights about his demeanour even before the traffic got too heavy. But he comes from warrior stock, and however bashful he may appear, the desire to prove the doubters wrong never cooled. Given the belated opportunity, it was the Indian batsmen who felt the wrath of a man scorned.
Generally, pitches in England are not especially conducive to spin, or at least until we started covering them from the elements. It is why we have struggled to produce international quality twirlers; for every Laker or Underwood there has been a Such or a Schofield. Graeme Swann’s emergence, after a long period of treading water at county level, has been wonderful to behold. No longer do we need to drool over the mysterious wiles of some foreign destroyer. Now we have our own hero to cheer. Finding what has for so long been the missing link in our Test attack however, has done little to address the opposite side of this problem. When it comes to playing against these purveyors of guile and trickery, English batsmen are still routinely hopeless.