by Bob Lethaby
What is it with English team sport and its miserable, turgid, statistical obsession that leaves it lying in a pile of data sheets as the rest of the world enjoys major sporting events like the festival of entertainment they are supposed to be?
For years, we have witnessed English football teams scrambling their way into major tournaments only to turn up with surly faces, multitudes of psychologists, dieticians and managers who talk about channels and percentages.
As every other team goes out and samples the local culture, mixing with the people and taking the time to enjoy the carnival atmosphere, English players stay imprisoned in a complex doing training drills to eliminate any sign of flair that may result in an error.
The results stay the same and the players come home humiliated, fending off a volley of accusations about not caring, having no pride and being spoilt Prima Donna’s.
Now the cricketers have followed suit, with the management bludgeoning us with statistics whilst sending players out on the field with heads controlled by psychologists, spreadsheets, performance graphs and a general fear of failure.
Watch 20 minutes of New Zealand play cricket, then follow it with 20 minutes watching England; the difference is so stark you could, if you weren’t a cricket fan, be forgiven for thinking you were watching different sports.
Watching England play in this cricket World Cup has been like watching the footballers in South Africa in 2010, or in Brazil last summer. Our football team did everything in its power to ruin the tournament as a spectacle whilst virtually every other nation had a right good attempt at expressing themselves and joining in with the fun.
Similar to the football in Brazil, every cricket team in Australia and New Zealand is playing with gay abandon, seeing the ball and either blocking it if it is a good delivery or putting it out of the ground if it is there to be hit. It’s an easy science that England are hopelessly not even beginning to understand as they eliminate all risk by banning anything approaching flair.
It is not like they don’t have the players, they just don’t like them very much, either sacking them, leaving them at home, or playing them so far down the batting order it is too late for them to perform the act of an escapologist when everything else has gone wrong.
No-one was expecting them to win the tournament, but the turgid ineptitude they showed when edging past the might of Scotland, showed that after the absolute battering they received at the hands of Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, it was a mere warm up for the catastrophe at the hands of Bangladesh; the perennial whipping boys of every other Test playing nation.
It was no fluke either. England were outclassed in virtually every department, whether it was the predictable bowling attack or the bogged down top order batsmen, which was backed up of course, by some vintage Laurel & Hardy moments that will feature on a ‘Tuffers Duffers’ DVD any time soon.
It is easy to make the assessment that we are just hopeless at sport and that we may as well just accept it, but I am not so sure that is the case. I may be entirely wrong, but I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that there is strong evidence to suggest that all these coaches, psychologists, and dieticians have blagged their way into making jobs for themselves which have had a detrimental (rather than a positive) effect on players who once looked like world beaters.
I first witnessed this in the Ashes series in Australia last year when England turned up with a plane full of statistics, played the game devoid of any wit or ingenuity and proceeded to get blown to pieces by Australian pace bowler, Mitchell Johnson. They then went home and sacked Kevin Pietersen in an act of blame shifting management that was even more pathetic than when Steve McClaren retired David Beckham to make himself look authoritative.
Worse still, is the fact that I have seen kids play indoor cricket every night this winter whilst working at Dummer Cricket Centre and for every good coach sending the boys and girls out to enjoy themselves, there is another following the England blueprint of risk aversion, intensity, structure and data.
The drop off of cricket players when they reach 15 is startling but when there are fun things to do like meet girls, go out with mates or play ‘Grand Theft Kill a Prostitute’ on the X-Box, who wants to be given data analysis sheets of their batting display by some dour adult with an iPad that now works with Microsoft Excel?
We had a senior player leave our club the other year to test himself at a higher level, which is fair enough. However, when he got to his new club, they told him that he wasn’t hitting the ball out of the ground the right way and proceeded to try to change his technique.
As a consequence, he gave up cricket for a year before coming back to our club to commence hitting the ball out of the ground again. Because we are a village club, we couldn’t give a toss how he stands, because when you hit a cricket ball hard, it tends to go a long way. I am not sure if the England coaches and psychologists are aware but if you hit the ball hard it often ends up gaining the team four or even six runs.
Of course, there are certain aspects of technique that are required in sport, in particular, cricket, but from the ECB down to the level I see at our local indoor centre, I have witnessed far too often for it to be a coincidence, people playing with too much intensity and too little flair because they have been told not to make errors.
So while players in the other teams continue to show off their audacious skills to the rest of the cricket world, England will be on their way home and they will not be missed. Their boorish Barmy Army will be gone and so will the miserable group of analysts, doctors and coaches. The rest of the cricketing world will be left in peace to enjoy the tournament for what it is supposed to be – a spectacle.
If you love cricket, don’t mourn England’s departure, because, ultimately, they were a stain of misery casting a shadow over the enjoyment. Instead, just sit back and watch the likes of Sangakarra, Maxwell, McCullum and De Villiers hitting the ball all over and out of the ground as they try to win cricket matches with flair and audacity rather than anything based on historical.
Summarising on England’s latest debacle, all that England Manager, Peter Moores, could come up with was…”We will have to look at the data.”
I would like to think he was taking the piss.