The big question: Why are England doing so badly at cricket, and who is to blame?


Why are we asking this question now?  

England have been eliminated from the Cricket World Cup, being played in the West Indies. The defeat by South Africa on Tuesday, which confirmed their removal in the second stage of the tournament, known as the Super Eights, was particularly inept. South Africa won by nine wickets, bowling out England for 154 and then scoring the runs they required for victory and a place in the semi-finals in fewer than 20 overs. Although South Africa should be applauded for managing to approach their peak in a crunch encounter, it was the culmination of an appalling World Cup and a dire winter in general for England.

In the previous six weeks (it is the longest sporting competition ever devised) their cricket had been fitful at best but was usually dire. They won four matches in all - unconvincingly, against such cricketing giants as Canada, Kenya, Ireland and Bangladesh - but lost to all the more traditionally accomplished opponents, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Australia and South Africa.

This failure has been exacerbated by a long winter of defeat: starting in the one-day Champions Trophy in October, continuing with the Ashes in Australia when they lost 5-0 and broken only by winning a triangular one-day series in Australia.

But wasn't the nation rejoicing when England regained the Ashes in 2005?

Indeed it was, and the elation was entirely justified, although the combination of MBEs and OBEs that were awarded to each player and members of management might have over-egged the Ashes pudding.

Two things should be borne in mind when reflecting on that English triumph. The Ashes series comprises Tests, which consist of two innings a side spread over five days, while the World Cup is a limited-overs competition consisting of 50 overs a side played on one day. For some reason nobody has yet satisfactorily explained that England have become much better at Test cricket. Despite their thrashing by Australia in their defence of the Ashes during the winter, they remain the number two ranked team in the world.

For more than a decade they have struggled with the shorter version. The frequent suggestion that they treat it too lightly has been rejected just as often, though not with overwhelming conviction.

How have we done since 2005?

The 2005 victory infused the England team with a misguided belief that they could beat anybody. This meant in turn that they took their eye off the ball, sometimes, given the quality of their fielding, all too literally.

In both long and short forms of the game, they have struggled for consistency, which represents a state of nirvana for professional sportsmen. A Test series in Pakistan was lost, though that was followed by a highly commendable and improbable drawn rubber in India. In both cases, however, the corresponding one-day series were lost, auguring badly even then for the World Cup.

At home last summer, England were desperately poor against Sri Lanka, drawing a Test series they ought to have won and being roundly defeated 5-0 in the one-day matches. This was followed, however, by Test victory against Pakistan (and a drawn one-day series).

So, who is to blame?

Fundamentally, the players, who have not been helped at various intervals by injuries to key colleagues. But these are part of sporting life. The vultures which have been circling around the head of the coach, Duncan Fletcher, for months, look ready for a messy kill. Any search for culpability may also alight on the chairman of selectors, David Graveney, and less probably but not impossibly on the captain, Michael Vaughan.

It is generally accepted that the Zimbabwe-born South African resident Fletcher, upon whom British citizenship was conferred after the 2005 Ashes, is one of the most proficient technical coaches in the world, and it has been said without much exaggeration that he can spot a glitch in batting method with the naked eye at 100 paces. England have indubitably improved under his tenure. At one point leading up to the Ashes victory, they won six successive Test series.

However, Fletcher has attracted criticism for his wariness, often but not exclusively with reporters, and his confrontational approach to officials if things are not going his way. He has been coach to the same team for much longer than any of his rivals and it is felt that he may be past his shelf life.

The evidence of the winter is fairly conclusive. The results alone have been poor, but when a group of England players, including the talismanic Andrew Flintoff, were fined for a late night boozing binge earlier in the World Cup, it suggested that the management might have lost control.

There is a mood abroad that the chairman of selectors should at long last be paid a proper salary rather than be a well-meaning amateur. It would seem premature and a case of jerking knees to sack Vaughan. As the feted Ashes-winning captain, he spent much of the subsequent period injured, missed the Ashes defence when Flintoff made a porridge of the job and was rushed back for the World Cup.

What happens next?

It is already happening. In the wake of the disastrous Ashes campaign, the England and Wales Cricket Board established a review committee, under the chairmanship of Ken Schofield, the former chief executive of the European golf tour. This includes several former England players, including Angus Fraser. Nominally, the panel will scrutinise the performances of Team England in the past four years. In reality it will examine the wreckage of the past winter and make recommendations accordingly.

At the very least a lessening of the authority of the coach with an increase in powers for the selectors' chairman, and perhaps the appointment of a team manager, can be expected. The ECB has promised that the recommendations will be acted on. It is intended that Schofield will produce the results before the First Test of the 2007 summer on 17 May - but by then Fletcher might already have gone.

Who could replace Fletcher?

Three candidates stand out. Tom Moody, the Australian coach of Sri Lanka, has taken the team into the World Cup semi-finals. He lives in Worcester, but is thought to have accepted in principle the role of coach with Western Australia. John Wright, the New Zealander who coached India to the last World Cup final, has the experience, knowledge and correct approach. But the favourite may be Peter Moores, the director of the National Academy, who was successful at Sussex. He has sound qualifications, a likeable temperament - and Englishness.

A WINTER OF DISCONTENT

October 2006: Eliminated in first stage of the ICC Champions Trophy, known as the mini World Cup, after defeats to India and Australia

November 2006 to January 2007: Lost 5-0 in the Ashes series in Australia, having regained them in summer 2005. England held them for one year and 97 days having been without them for 16 years and 142 days

February 2007: Won the Commonwealth Bank triangular, one-day series after a dreadful start, by beating Australia three times in a row

March, April 2007: Eliminated from second stage of World Cup after losing four matches to stronger nations

Should Duncan Fletcher go?

Yes...

* England have lost their way under his stewardship after a disastrous winter, finishing with early exit from the World Cup

* Now 58, he has been in the job almost eight years, and may be out of touch with a new generation of players

* His departure would also see the demise of the men directly appointed by him, who must shoulder some responsibility

No...

* He moulded England into a combative unit capable of beating any side in the world, including Australia

* It is possible that the present crop of players will improve under Fletcher and are merely finding their international feet

* The system that produced the players from easygoing county cricket is more worthy of blame than the international team's coach

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