In disarray

2009-02-13 00:00

IT would be easy to attribute the embarrassing failure of England’s batsmen in the first Test match in the Caribbean to several reasons, both simple and arcane. Some commentators have suggested that the IPL auction, which elevated the net worth of Pietersen and Flintoff far above that of any of their team-mates, has introduced more feelings of envy and jealousy into an England dressing room than since the days of Geoff Boycott.

Boycott, whose idea of a great day at the office would have been to have made 115 not out in a score of 145, believes that England’s cricketers are cosseted to such an extent that their capacity to think for themselves has been so diminished that “they would not think to wipe their bottoms” without reference to the clutch of coaches that analyses their every move.

Others blame the holiday season fiasco, which saw Pietersen deprived of the England captaincy.

Sceptics doubt the ability of Andrew Strauss to lead a team containing three former captains, all of them powerful personalities.

Giles Clarke, the controversial chairman of the ECB, is fortunate that the challenge to his leadership was dropped before England went in to bat last Saturday; otherwise his detractors, who blame him for sacking Pietersen, might have found another reason to press for his dismissal. The overall picture is one of disarray and discontent both within and outside the team.

It is too soon to start pointing fingers with the series against the West Indies just one match old.

Several years ago in the first Test of a series, the West Indies were bowled out for a similar total against an Australian team at the height of its powers. However, they went on to win two out of the three remaining matches and draw the series. Strange things happen in the Caribbean.

It is still possible that England could recover their poise to win this particular series against a West Indies team who have demonstrated a fragility of purpose too often to be regarded as a team with more of a future than a past. The Windies are still capable of reducing their supporters to despair although those close to the team are cautiously optimistic that the worst of the long decline is over.

For an English team who hope to recover the Ashes later this year, victory in the Caribbean is not negotiable. Defeat would mean changes to a team that increasingly resembles some of those from Pakistan with its full bench of former captains and a foreign coach. In contrast, in 2005, the Ashes were won with a settled team who had behind them several years of success in different parts of the world.

The current team were meant to be using the series in the Caribbean to get into fighting shape for the Ashes. Now questions are being asked of those formerly regarded as stalwarts and doubts expressed about the relationship between the two tattooed emperors whose talents were supposed to have led England to years of glory. Some would argue that these reservations are not being expressed before time. After all the South Africans, although not playing at their best, exposed weaknesses in the team led last year by Michael Vaughan.

Top of the hit list is Monty Panesar, who is short of confidence and wickets. He has been unable to add to his repertoire the variations necessary to take wickets under all conditions. Presented with several turning pitches in Test matches over the past year, Panesar was disturbingly ineffective. Some now regard his place in the team as wasted space.

Steve Harmison strikes form so rarely these days that he has become the luxury that his captain cannot afford. Sidebottom is good for six overs with the new ball, following which he is redundant unless conditions favour swing bowling.

For all the adulation heaped on him and despite the vast number of overs that he has bowled, Flintoff has only twice taken five wickets in an innings in a career that has spanned 10 years. His wickets average well over 30 runs apiece. He has rarely been a match-winner with ball and is now just a good bowler approaching the age of diminishing returns.

This attack, which resembles the broken British economy, will not frighten the Aussies even in the weakened state of the team from Down Under.

Of the batsmen, only Pietersen has been consistent, but he may be the biggest problem of all. It is no secret that the England dressing room is not the happiest place on Earth. After his first innings dismissal in Jamaica, when he threw his wicket away in another attempt to showboat his way to a century, he pretty well said that those who were critical of his fatal shot had better get used to it because that was the way he plays, finish and klaar.

It was the attitude of a man whose pockets are overflowing with IPL dollars. It remains to be seen if his uncontrollable ego can be accommodated next to that of Flintoff in the dressing room of a team for whom Test match victories have become a rarity. The promised land of a Pietersen/Flintoff-driven team has become a desert of disappointment. In the 21 Tests featuring both players since 2005, England have won just three, including a dead rubber against South Africa.

Andrew Strauss will either lead a remarkable revival in the Caribbean or find himself in the growing ranks of former captains.

•Ray White is a former UCB president.

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