England may play better cricket today. They could not play worse cricket than they did on Friday. But then anything seems possible.
In an exhibition that was at once shoddy, careless and unprofessional, they went 2-1 down in the one-day series against West Indies at the Kensington Oval. Winning today – as they must to keep the series alive – would not erase the quite horrendous nature of it.
There was something terminally sad and painful about it, something that should impart to this group of players just how far off they are from being contenders. From the stars to the journeymen they were found wanting, and the gap between the sides was much greater than victory and defeat by eight wickets.
West Indies played joyously, the game of men who were enjoying what they do under a captain whom they trust implicitly. England were off to another day at the office.
This tour was always going to be tough for England. The team have been in the charge of two good men who had no input into their selection. Maybe it would not have been much different, but that is not the point. They are still working with tools chosen by others.
Andy Flower, the assistant coach, yesterday sought no excuses for his side being bowled out so wretchedly for 117. They avoided their lowest one-day score of all time, 86, only because of an improbable ninth-wicket stand of 48. They did not deserve it. England had arranged a day off yesterday. Flower rightly said it could not be justified, so they practised, some of the naughtiest-boy nets ever.
"It was a very, very poor batting display, you don't need to get into the bowling," said Flower. "What happens out there in the middle is the sum of the decisions that people make, and the decisions the batsmen made were very poor decisions."
England hooked themselves to certain defeat, falling tamely for West Indies' version of the three-card trick. Five batsman got out in this fashion, three swished lamely to point. Then Chris Gayle almost inevitably dismantled the bowling with a thunderous display of hitting, with eight sixes.
"It was there for all to see that certain shots might have been dangerous on that wicket, certainly after [Andrew] Strauss's dismissal," said Flower. "These guys are grown men playing international cricket so you expect them to see a similar pattern. I suppose assuming things is dangerous."
Strauss had been barely less harsh in the immediate aftermath. The players, he said, were representing England and had an obligation to perform better. There was a sense yesterday that it was something more than the loss of another match in a long winter of losses, of both matches and opportunities. Something had shifted. Perhaps it was a realisation that the team need not only reshaping in terms of personnel but also in approach, attitude and self-scrutiny.
For long enough there has been too great an inclination to tell each other what good players they are. They seem to be mates, they insist they get on, but that is not reflected in the manner in which they go about their game.
It was inevitable that attention should fall on Kevin Pietersen, and not only because he was one of the unhappiest hookers. He is the best player in the side and a model professional who practises harder than the others. But Pietersen made a dreadful mistake by saying in a newspaper interview that he was at the end of his tether and could not wait to go home.
Since in Barbados he is living in five-star comfort in a hotel which adjoins a private, golden beach, sympathy was never about to be off the scale. But no sooner will Pietersen have arrived back at the home he so craves than he is off again to play in the Indian Premier League in South Africa.
It is becoming clearer by the day that Pietersen was deeply affected by the loss of the captaincy in January, to the point of being traumatised. He is unsure of his place in the scheme of things. Such issues can have a grave effect on a cricket team, especially one in management limbo.
In the same interview, Pietersen criticised the West Indies batsman Shivnarine Chanderpaul, claiming the run machine "never fields" after making a big score and "plays for himself". Despite being buddies with KP, Gayle responded yesterday with a verbal battering as ferocious as his batting. Gayle said: "I did talk to [Pietersen] and told him, 'You don't need to stoop to that level.' He didn't actually apologise, and if he could apologise, that would be nice. Whatever issues he had, he should have kept to himself. There's no need to try and degrade other players."
Flower and Strauss have developed a working relationship based on mutual respect and similar ideas. But it is not having the desired results. The team have won one match all winter.
The job may still go to Flower, and all the evidence except the most relevant, results, suggests that would be the correct appointment. But when he is at last interviewed on his return next week it will be a time for candour and brutal honesty.
"It's tempting to feel as if the sky is going to fall down on our heads, but we've got a game of cricket to win and that's what's important for me," said Flower. Win or lose, the sky has already fallen on this England.
Strike action is still an option
West Indies players warned last night they were prepared to boycott the final one-day international of the series against England in St Lucia, writes Stephen Brenkley.
It means they would put their international careers at risk as well as sponsorship of the game in the Caribbean by Digicel. But their captain Chris Gayle indicated yesterday that they were coming to the end of their patience with the West Indies Cricket Board over pay and contract demands for domestic players.
The West Indies Players' Association failed to resolve the dispute with the board last week but the prospect of industrial action was believed to have been averted. However, after hearing conflicting information from the board, West Indies' captain Chris Gayle refused to rule out the prospect of a strike.
"There is a possibility," he said. "Players have come to me disappointed that their names are out there in the media. The arrangement was there shouldn't have been any comment regarding negotiations. We are prepared not to play in St Lucia." Players in the Caribbean held a one-day strike last week to complain about poor domestic organisation.
Gayle added: "It's not about us who are playing for West Indies, it's more about the regional players. This stuff has been going on for years and it's about time some proper infrastructure was there. Guys have played first-class cricket for years and have nothing to show for it. They need to play for West Indies to earn some sort of living, which is very disappointing."