Let's try and be fair here. England had several pieces of outrageous misfortune. It wasn't just Andrew Flintoff who was robbed this weekend. Zimbabwe's victory over South Africa was an astonishing result, and savage in its timing. It turned England's game against India from a relative formality into a straight knock-out. All credit to the Zimbabweans, as Alec Stewart would say, but their total of 232 was eminently gettable at Chelmsford with its short straight boundaries. South Africa, by collapsing to 40 for 6, were the real villains of the piece - the white men in the woodpile.
Then, yesterday, England found their batsmen's fate suddenly placed in the hands of Javed Akhtar, the worst umpire in the World Cup. England can't complain too loudly about this, because Javed's inability to judge lbws helped them beat South Africa in last summer's Test series, which now stands out as even more of a triumph in the gloom that surrounds it. But Javed's dismissal of Graham Thorpe yesterday was just preposterous. The ball was bowled from round the wicket by a right-armer, Javagal Srinath, and it hit Thorpe, a left-hander, in front of the leg stump. Not even Javed's namesake Shoaib could have curled the ball back from there to hit the target. On the replay the wicketkeeper, Nayan Mongia, already directly behind Thorpe, can be seen clearly shimmying further to his right. If Thorpe had got his pad out of the way, that ball would have been a wide. It was the first wicket of the day, and much the biggest.
The same thing had happened to England against South Africa. They bowled and fielded above themselves, as they did throughout the tournament, to keep South Africa to a manageable 225. Alec Stewart was then given out lbw to Jacques Kallis off the first ball of the innings. It was an inducker that might have hit, but nine out of 10 umpires - OK, eight, if Javed was among them - would have said it was too high for comfort. Then Nasser Hussain was given out caught behind, also off Kallis, for two. The ball went down the legside with no visible deviation. The bowler didn't even appeal at first. Again, it may have been out, but there is no way it was beyond reasonable doubt.
The Oval is a nice place to bat for the first 15 overs, as Gary Kirsten and Herschelle Gibbs had shown. If the openers had survived those appeals, England cannot claim that they would have won - Allan Donald's spell would have been decisive against any team in the world - but they would surely not have been all out for 103. Their run-rate would not have taken a hammering and they would have got away with losing to India, just as Zimbabwe got away with poor performances against England and Sri Lanka.
The old saying that you make your own luck seems to be absurd - luck consists precisely of those events over which you have no control. But even the die-hard England fan has to acknowledge that England made some elementary mistakes. There are three groups of guilty men:
1) The selectors: OK so, we will never know if, say, Chris Lewis or Andy Caddick would have taken more wickets than the Austin-Fraser combination (four between them), or if Nick Knight would have made more runs than Flintoff or Hollioake (21 between them). But Messrs Grav, Goochie and Gatt made one major strategic error: they didn't have a strategy. The clear-cut policy that led to victory in Sharjah 18 months ago was abandoned as soon as England lost in the West Indies (most teams do). Adam Hollioake was dumped as captain but retained as a player, which meant that his strongest suit went unused, while Alec Stewart was handed the triple burden from which, as any fool could see halfway through the Ashes tour, his batting plainly suffered. With his strangely mediocre record, he is now unlikely to play another one-day international; but if he does, it must be in no more than two roles.
2) The batsmen: They can't really be blamed for the two collapses, which were just two of those things. They can be blamed for being clueless against spin. In a seamers' tournament it has been especially vital to be able to milk the slow stuff. Yesterday Flintoff and Hollioake both showed hopeless shot selection against Anil Kumble. Stewart himself is sometimes not much better. This problem was exposed six years ago by the Indians and Shane Warne. Why has so little been done to fix it?
3) The administrators: In the last World Cup, England did even worse than they have this time - they didn't beat one Test-playing country, whereas here they beat two. It was blindingly obvious that they were not playing enough one-day internationals. In the three years between World Cups, they played 46 one-dayers, which is roughly the number that India or Pakistan play every year. Those countries probably overdo it. But they are still in the World Cup.
Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricket MonthlyReuse content