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A crucifixion in the City of Churches

9 December 2013

7:51 PM

9 December 2013

7:51 PM

Here we go again. Time for another round of that perennial game so wearily familiar to England cricket supporters: Hunt the Positives. It is a mean game because, most of the time, there aren’t any.

Certainly not today. England were abject in Adelaide. Scarcely any better than they had been in Brisbane. If, borrowing from Evelyn Waugh, we classify sides as Leading team, First-Rate team, Good Team and Team we must acknowledge that England, at present, rank as Team. And as Mr Waugh would have put it, Frankly, Team is pretty bad.

Less a team, in fact, and more a rabble. With the exception of Joe Root’s second-innings knock England can take nothing but misery with them as they cross the Nullarbor Plain to Perth. And who knows what horrors await them in that fair city? 

Cricket, we like to think, is a game especially suited to revealing character. England’s cricketers might care to ponder that on the flight to Perth. Winning and losing matters, of course, but how you win and how you lose tells you – and the watching public – something about your team. And the verdict on this England side’s performance, based on the two horrific tests played thus far, is severe. Even a liberal judge might conclude he has little option but to impose the maximum penalty: a trip to the gallows.

Perhaps you think that goes too far. Perhaps you would like to play another favourite game: Search for Excuses. There are not many of them around either even if it is true that many of us may have underestimated the stimulus Australia would receive from playing on their own sun-blasted sod. (For some reason it often seems as though Australia gain more advantage from playing in Australia than England do from playing in England. Then again, Australia quite often have the better players.)

But they don’t this time. There is no gaping, unbridgeable, chasm of ability between Alistair Cook’s men and Michael Clarke’s side. There are, as a man once said, two teams out there but only one of them is playing cricket. The other is just fannying about.

Fielding, as Gideon Haigh observed in a characteristically elegant piece in today’s Times, often reveals a lot about a team. Australia have fielded well; England have been sloppy. As Haigh put it, Australia have erected “a kind of electrified fence” whereas England have “an unkempt herbaceous border”. Quite.

This test’s denouement was pitiful. All England hoped for rain while knowing salvation from the heavens was extremely improbable. Resuming six down and with victory long out of sight, England’s prospects were bleak. We accepted this, recognising that England had been outplayed in every facet of the game. Defeat was massively probable; all that remained to be determined were the precise terms of that defeat.

England, it turned out, opted for capitulation and unconditional surrender. No Rorke’s Drift performance, this. It was revealing – horribly revealing – stuff. Stuart Broad is dismissed, hooking, off the fifth ball of the day. Graeme Swann offers some slip-catching practice off a ball a foot outside off-stump. Matt Prior is caught in the deep. And that was that. Three dreadful dismissals and the white flag is run up with a whimper.

It was pathetic, demeaning, stuff. The kind of cricket that shames a club XI. The kind of cricket that, in a strong club with ample resources, gets a fellow dropped. Of course it was unlikely that England would survive 90 overs; it was still incumbent upon them to try. And they did not try. They batted as though they were the team 400 runs ahead, not the team supposed to be scrapping for a miraculous but oh-so-sweet draw. Where – where in the name of god – was The Spirit of Tavare?

Prior’s form has been so wretched that you might say he – and we – should not be picky about how he got a score of any sort. Perhaps so. But he resumed 31 not out and this was a time for graft and knuckling down, not a moment for treating the final day as a kind of net session without nets.

As for Broad, well, what can one say? Perhaps only this: he can bat. He has made a test century. He faced 297 balls in making his 169 against Pakistan at Lords. On that occasion he batted for more than seven hours. That should have been his template yesterday. He should have arrived at the crease determined to play the innings of his life. Instead he threw it all away in the very first over of the day.

As recently as March England seemed to have some idea how to save a game. Then Prior and Broad were instrumental in salvaging a near-lost cause in Auckland. Prior batted for four and half hours to finish undefeated on 110*. Broad, for his part, batted against type, occupying the crease for more than two hours (and 77 deliveries) as he made the most patient 7 runs of his life.

Where was that spirit yesterday?

Again, the losing is one thing; the manner of the capitulation quite another. Phrases such as Lacking Moral Fibre start to creep into your mind. England played as though they’d had enough and couldn’t wait to get out of Adelaide.

Fair enough. We’ve all been in those situations. Those games when the opposition rock up 300 off their 40 overs and you’re 13/2 and all hope is lost. So club players have a swing and suddenly it’s 42 all out. But even club players know that’s not good enough and that there’s something abject about surrendering without a proper fight. Block and block and let the buggers work for their wickets. At the very least keep them out there for as long as possible. Enjoy the midget pleasure of seeing them become frustrated. Bat with dignity. Because if you don’t the captain will tear a strip off you when you saunter, smiling, back to the pavilion.

England did not play like that in Adelaide. They were meek and when they weren’t busy being meek they were being stupid. And all this on a demon and devil-free pitch. They are fast becoming a team that forfeits their right to enjoy your best wishes. Not, again, because they are losing but because of the way in which they are losing.

With apologies to Philip Larkin it all made me put some spin on perhaps his most famous poem:

They fuck you up, Cook and Broad

They do not mean to but they do.

They fill you with the hopes they had

And add some extra just for you.

[…] Man hands on misery to man

It deepens like a coastal shelf

Get out as early as you can

And don’t make any runs yourself.

Can they put a stop to the rot? Sure, of course they can. Will they? That, old chum, is a three-pipe conundrum.

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