So then, April is upon us. The county season is almost upon us once more and in just forty-four days time Brian Lara and his merry band of West Indian men will be pulling up at Lords for the first test match of the summer, which I must admit rather caught me on the hop. What with endless pyjama party going on in the West Indies at the moment and all the focus on Englandís one day woes/brilliance/then back to woes again I had quite forgotten how horrible a state the English test team had been left in. It seems like another lifetime almost, that day in Sydney when Langer and Hayden cruised to the victory target and forced upon England their greatest humiliation in Australia for over seventy years and thatís a danger.
There is no disguising the fact the England cricket was facing a dark time after the humiliation at the hands of our antipodean counterparts. The CB series, which England miraculously won, went someway to exorcising the demons facing Duncan Fletcher, but at the same time the only positive that could be taken out of it was the fact that Paul Collingwood rediscovered his touch to devastating effect and took that into the West Indies. Everything else that happened in that series is now helping to derail Englandís world cup charge as the management and the team stick to a flawed plan that at sometime or another was going to fall apart. That for me sums up the way English cricket is being run at the moment.
The last time the West Indies visited these shores Englandís progress was not only tangible, but it was impressive. Sure there were a few kinks to iron out here or there (who was to bat at number three for one), but Englandís summer of 2004 was one of progress and good progress too. Things were being put in place and the charge towards the 2007 Ashes (which was the original plan remember) was firmly gathering speed. England were on top with a good settled side (a good core of one anyway) and were daring to try out youngsters or newcomers when a place came up. It helped, I suppose, that we were winning at the time. Itís always easy to take such risks when youíre three nowt up in a series, but it was that daring to throw these cricketers into the fray that helped to mould them. The knowledge that if they got in the team and performed, they would stay in and around the team. Andrew Strauss had that; Ian Bell had that; Kevin Pietersen had that. It was this trust and belief that allowed England to go to South Africa and win a series for the first time since their readmission and upset the apple cart two years ahead of schedule when the Australians came visiting in that glorious summer of 2005. Even in defeat in Pakistan as the hangover kicked in and during the creditable draw in India England kept doing this as injury ravaged the squad that took the Ashes, as Liam Plunkett, Monty Panesar, Alistair Cook and Owais Shah all made their test debuts. An okay summer where Sri-Lanka sucker-punched us to earn a draw and where Pakistan were beaten left England fans in a cautiously optimistic mood ahead of the doomed trip to Australia. Panesar and Cook were now firmly established as part of the mix while the wicket-keeping debate appeared solved after the dropping of Geraint Jones and tidy performances from Chris Read.
And then it happenedÖ
I donít know why Duncan Fletcher decided to do what he did and maybe I never will, but on the morning of that first Test as Australia flayed our attack into the night you were left wondering why he abandoned the plan that had helped take us to number two in the world. He had no qualms in dropping the older Graham Thorpe when Pietersen emerged and Graham Thorpe had enjoyed a good winter in South Africa and a nice work out against Bangladesh. One thing he wasnít was injured for a year, so why did Duncan Fletcher decide to pick Ashley Giles ahead of a spinner who was a large reason why many of the English public believed we had a shot at the urn? It went totally against everything that had come before it, it defied belief and the picking of Geraint Jones ahead of Chris Read only amplified the feelings of surprise and shock. The system that had worked for three years had been tossed away overnight. Is it any wonder then that the English cricketers looked as disjointed and fragmented as they did? The old rules didnít apply anymore, so how could any of them know what to expect? Suddenly you could be injured for a year and come straight back into the team, or in form (in Test matches, I am well aware of the Champions Trophy performances) and dropped. Itís almost is if Fletcher and Co. lost sight of the bigger picture and decided to go back to 2005 (or as close as they could get to it) because it had worked before, instead of giving the young guns a chance like they had in previous seriesí. He did not put his best eleven on the field that day and I think deep down he knows it and even if he doesnít history and the cricket watching public do.
Was it about legacy? Did the ego get the better of him? To be the coach that won the Ashes back in 2005 and retained them in Australia in 2007 wouldíve been a fantastic achievement. It wouldíve easily etched his name in the history books and maybe figuring his tenure would be coming to an end soon he decided to go for a double or quits gamble which backfired spectacularly. Unfortunately for Duncan and English cricket not only did he not win the Ashes, but also his shortsighted gamble pulled apart the work that up until that point had made England a force to be reckoned with. The charge to be the Worldís number one side was destroyed in Australia by the decisions made and now he is repeating the mistake at the World Cup: short-sightedly gambling on a team that somehow won the CB series to take him to World Cup glory, while ignoring the fact that it was only a monumental display from Paul Collingwood that managed to win us the series in the first place and though the warning signs are there to see, as they were in the Ashes, he still will not change until it is too late.
The point here is that before last winter the English cricket ethos was about progress and renewal with new blood and new ideas filtering through all the time. The team was always in a constant state of evolution as it attempted to make its way to the top of the world rankings and it was working. Then, perhaps for reasons cited above, the team and the process stagnated and itís focus became to narrow. They became stuck in their own little bubble and now theyíre trapped there, making the same mistakes over and over again, mistakes which theyíll keep making them the focus changes back to what it once was and thatís where the West Indies come in. We need to concentrate, not just on the Ashes, but on becoming the number one test playing nation in the world and to do that we need to return to the basics of three years ago, which means playing the best team we have at the moment and then giving promising players a chance as and when the opportunity arises. Itís not exactly rocket science and itís nothing we havenít done before, but for Duncan Fletcher it means the end of his tenure. After 2005 he stopped evolving, for him that was it. He had his magic formula, so there was no more need to evolve, right? The irony of course is that the process of evolution and renewal was the magic formula and if Duncan Fletcher continues at the helm the future is plain to see.
In conclusion then the ECB need to do the following: pick a coach whose aim is to get England to number one in the world; lose the short-sighted obsession with the Australians that makes only one test every two years important; select the best players in the country for tests and tours; and finally, make sure that the best eleven players take the field on the 17th May. If that means the selectors making tough decisions, so be it. If it means the dropping of established names, fine. As long as England begin that series against the West Indies with the process in place once more, I donít mind if we win or lose because in the bigger picture itís a price you sometimes have to pay for progress and in the end, thatís what we want.