It has been a testing 18 months or so for the England cricket team. After being humiliated 5-0 by arch-rivals Australia, the Poms limped to a first-round exit in the World Twenty20 that followed – losing comfortably to the Netherlands along the way. A shock 1-0 defeat in the Test series to Sri Lanka continued their woes, and while a 3-1 win over India in the same format brought brief respite, humiliation promptly returned with Alastair Cook’s ODI sacking which preceded a hopeless showing at this year’s World Cup.
The recently completed three-Test tour of the Caribbean raised more questions than it answered too. Yes, Cook managed to acquaint ball with bat once more – ending a 23-month century drought – but England were ultimately not able to best West Indies, drawing the series 1-1.
The reasons for England’s decline and prolonged struggles are plenty, and to suggest that all of the troubles can be pinpointed on a single area would be an unfair assessment. Nor would it be right to imply that the 11 men are the pitch are the sole bearers of responsibility. Crisis in the management has shown itself to be equally unhelpful. Here are the five main problems that have, and continue to thwart England’s progress.
No genuine spinner
Ashley Giles, Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann. Nearly every England side for a decade and before has had the luxury of a dependable and effective spinner. Since the Ashes debacle which led to Swann’s retirement, the significant gap that was left has yet to be filled. Moeen Ali has plied his trade diligently, but ultimately, his off-breaks will never be his sole focus and therefore, he won’t be the team’s answer. James Tredwell has also been used sparingly, but he too is not the strike force England need.
So what are the options? Yorkshire’s Adil Rashid was taken to the Caribbean last month – indicating the leg spinner is next in line – but he didn’t play a game as England favoured Tredwell, who played in the first Test. Scott Borthwick is another leggie who they have toyed with but not shown any real commitment to. The highly-touted Simon Kerrigan, 25, was swiftly discarded after a terrible outing on debut against Australia at The Oval two years ago and has not come back into the fold; but he is still young and a prolific summer for Lancashire could bring him back in the frame.
Whatever happens, England succeed when their spinners succeed. If it requires tailoring county pitches to provide incentives for slow bowlers then so be it. They need a good one, and soon.
Alastair Cook’s stubborn captaincy
When blessed with formidable world beaters, Cook’s captaincy never really mattered – his team had such strength that England could still win even if his decision making was a bit awry. Now, that is not the case and as always, an under-performing squad draws attention to leadership qualities, and Cook has been exposed.
His stubbornness as ODI captain, which eventually culminated in his excruciating removal just months before the World Cup, is testament to the man that he is. In many ways that can be a good thing, standing firm is essential when under the most intense scrutiny, but it can also be stupidity. Cook is a man who seems unable to accept his failures. His comments toward his next boss Colin Graves that a Yorkshireman is “quite happy to talk a good game” were naive and disrespectful.
Geoffrey Boycott, the former England opener, claimed that Cook thought he was “untouchable” and he perhaps has a point. The inability to beat West Indies was not Graves’ fault, and it is time for the incumbent captain to realise that the tactic of blaming others has been exhausted.
The Kevin Pietersen Saga
He may not have played in an England shirt for over a year but Kevin Pietersen has not gone away. His back-handed dismissal has not played well with the public nor the man himself who is intent on regaining his place at whatever cost.
While former coach Peter Moores – who was sacked on Saturday – and removed managing director Paul Downton adopted an unrelenting stance on Pietersen, it appears Graves holds a more liberal stance on the issue. The reality is that England need their most prolific 11 players, and if KP can justify a place as part of that 11 then he must be selected, whether he is a divisive figure or not. This is sport, not a playground tiff.
In a bid for a recall, Pietersen backed out of his Indian Premier League deal with Sunrisers Hyderabad to sign with Surrey, the Division Two county side. On debut against Oxford MCCU the 34-year-old cracked 170, hinting at what may be to come. He also remains vocal on social media too, and is never one to mince his words. It looks like the Kevin Pietersen saga has chapters left unwritten.
White ball confusion
“It’s not whether you win or lose it’s how you play the game,” the old saying goes. Well that’s not strictly true – losing relentlessly in professional sport won’t do you any favours – but England’s strategy in the limited-overs game hasn’t exactly helped them. Their style was archaic last century, and despite a plethora of embarrassing moments, nothing has been done to change it.
England insist that keeping wickets in hand before exploding at the end is the most productive plan, disregarding the lack of joy it has brought them. In ODIs, 300 is paraded as the golden score, and a winning target. Perhaps that’s because they have yet to work out how to conquer such a chase. But their rivals did years ago. Two months back at the World Cup, Sri Lanka cruised past the 309 England posted, for the loss of one wicket. That match alone was so demonstrative of the gulf in class and mindset.
If Greece’s victory in football’s 2004 European Championship was a shock then England’s 2010 World Twenty20 triumph was an earth-shaker. The latter have never come near to replicating their exploits in that tournament. Granted T20 cricket has never been a priority, but that’s no excuse for such ineffectiveness in the format, which has seen them lose more than once to an Associate nation – the Netherlands – on the global stage. England must embrace modernity and choose their brashest and boldest from the county circuit, the established clique have not delivered.
An underappreciated facet, competence and a long-term plan are two must-haves in the backroom, and England look to be without either. The hiring and sacking of officials and the creation of a new post - which sounds remarkably familiar to the old one is hard to keep up with. Downton is out, Andrew Strauss is in, Graves is in, Moores is out. It's all rather confusing.
Moores, the latest removal as England’s coach after a second tenure that was as unsuccessful as his first, has left the national side in limbo less than a fortnight before their summer begins with two Tests against New Zealand. It saves them from another Moores and Strauss duo, which given their previous collaboration is probably a good thing. But now the quest is on for a replacement and the status quo has to end.
A radical and bold alternative would be a promising start. Jason Gillespie and Justin Langer are the two favourites for the job but with both in comfortable positions as coach at Yorkshire and Western Australia respectively, neither could be blamed for rejecting a role which has seen three men sacked in little over a year. With no immediate candidates, interim Paul Farbrace could fill in for longer than expected.