Let’s understand this aright: England were not a great side in the 2003 World Cup. No, no, certainly not. They played poorly and went out at the first stage. All of which was predictable, as they scrabbled around right to the very last minute trying to find their best team, so much so that the prospect of another 2 games in the VB
Series of 2002\03 was a desperately desirable prospect. This might appear familiar to some. A similar thing happened, incidentally, in 2006\07.
However, after that Cup, the chance presented itself of a fresh start. Knight, Stewart and Caddick, fabulous servants all, plus Hussain and White, lesser lights but important cogs nonetheless, wisely walked away and left a clear path. There were four whole years to get a team together for the next Cup. Plenty and plenty of time. Enough even for a few mistakes to be made along the way, and for a bit of ill-fortune, which was almost inevitably going to strike sometime, to be overcome. Well, yes, but not in the quantity that both ended-up happening. Let’s pick through those four years and try to work-out exactly what could have happened differently.
It’s easy to forget, but after the 2003 Cup exit, England’s first assignment was a minor triumph. 7 games against Pakistan and South Africa produced a convincing 5-2 scoreline (England also beat and lost to Zimbabwe once each, though the Zimbabweans were no longer strong enough to offer meaningful competition to most sides). And there were strong performances throughout from the 3 remaining players with previous credit (even if only brief in 2 of the 3 cases), Marcus Trescothick, Andrew Flintoff and James Anderson. The latter, indeed, was rapidly emerging as the new superstar of English cricket (a position only dented by the subsequent Test series – of which, unfortunately, more later). Yet it wasn’t merely these 3 players: a seemingly long-lost star made a triumphant return (Darren Gough) and announced he had big plans to play on to 2007; a new wicketkeeper established himself without too many qualms (Chris Read) and seemed a good bet to last the next 4 years as a lower-order biffer; and a more-than-useful third seamer showcased his thrifty side (Richard Johnson). Even the lone spinner, Ashley Giles, improved as the summer went on and his last 2 spells certainly outdid his combined first 5. Problems remained on the batting front: Anthony McGrath, Jamie Troughton, Rikki Clarke and Robert Key were tried without success, new captain Michael Vaughan’s ODI form was little more impressive than ever, and Vikram Solanki, chosen to open as a replacement for Knight, failed to totally convince, though fortune smiled on him – he had at least 3 let-offs in his 7 innings. He, too, finished well, with a flashing-bladed round-50. And in addition to this, there was Paul Collingwood to come back into the side, who had made an impressive finish to the winter. Things looked relatively rosy. It was possible to look ahead 3-and-a-half years and imagine a team, which might have looked something like this:
At that point, it was possible to see only one slot needing filling.
This is not to say no errors had been made. Solanki had not been an obvious choice, and remained so – he was clearly no opening-batsman (despite the fact he’d opened in the 2002 season in one-dayers for his county Worcestershire) and that fact was far from well-hidden; McGrath, Troughton, Clarke and Key (and, indeed, Collingwood) had nothing in their domestic records to justify selection and their failures were no surprise to some. Anderson, meanwhile, retained an ability to take wickets with both good and bad deliveries, while more often than not going for a few in the process. Gough, meanwhile, certainly did not convince many with his protestations that he was around for the long-haul. Those extended to the selectors when he was left-out of the winter touring party to Sri Lanka, with James Kirtley, a proven failure, preferred, as well as spinners Gareth Batty and Ian Blackwell. Batty and Blackwell had played in the previous winter’s VB
Series, and while Blackwell exceeded most expectations, Batty’s selection could be described as little but baffling. Likewise the retention of McGrath and Clarke. Andrew Strauss was added, and when Solanki failed abysmally in the warm-ups in Bangladesh, he was suddenly at the front of the queue.
Now was when the first of the misfortunes struck. England were ruthlessly exposed in the First ODI in Sri Lanka, with virtually no positives coming out with either bat or ball (though Collingwood was slotted back in), but more might have been learned had not rain washed-out the next 2 games. As it was, by the next series in West Indies little had been learnt since the summer.
Here in the Caribbean came the next baffling pieces of selection. Vaughan, who had been batting at three since his return to the side in the VB
Series of 2002\03, decided to move up to open with Trescothick, thereby shoving Strauss down to three. Rain failed to help matters early in this series, either, shortening the First game, forcing a no-result in the Second and completely washing-out the Third and Fourth. In addition to the decision with Vaughan, Stephen Harmison’s devastating figures in the Tests made him, in the eyes of near enough everyone, a shoo-in. Harmison’s previous ODI efforts had been little short of abysmal, and surprisingly enough nothing changed in this series. Gough at least was recalled, but this meant no place for Johnson, who had done little wrong. Gough’s appalling performance in the Sixth game placed him under scrutiny that he remained under until his forlorn final fling 2-and-a-half years later. In addition to this, Anderson’s golden-arm seemed finally to have faded, Batty and Blackwell were poor as ever, and aside from Trescothick and the at-three Strauss no batsmen made many waves. Read, however, played with enough verve to apparently ensure his ODI place (unlike his Test one) was safe.
When the summer came, it was clear that this was not the case, along with any other multitude of selectorial blunders. Geraint Jones’ selection ahead of Read was bad enough (Jones had done little of note in the domestic-one-day game, unlike Read), the decision initially taken to bat him at three made matters worse. It was obvious what was being attempted: to have a striker high in the order. Yet Jones, like Solanki, convinced few and his elevation (along with Vaughan’s remaining at the top) pushed the opener Strauss down further still. Quite what Sajid Mahmood had done to elevate himself above Johnson in the pecking-order, too, was an intriguing question. Mahmood’s single game produced figures of 7 overs for 56. And when McGrath was dropped it meant the Jones experiment was abandoned after a whole 2 games, to fit in Key once more. It was commendable to bat him in the top three this time, but he still showed no aptitude for the shorter game. Anderson did at least appear to relocate his golden-arm, even if it no longer appeared as golden as last summer. Harmison, however, was for the most part excellent, and appeared to have attained the accuracy required for the shorter game. With the bat, only the at-four Strauss and Flintoff demonstrated any capability whatsoever, and rain proved unhelpful to the cause for the third series in a row. Strauss’ success at four, however, proved more of a complication than a solution – initially championed as “the new Graham Thorpe”, it rapidly became clear that such a notion was a gross exaggeration. Still, Key, McGrath and Clarke did not appear good enough, as well as Vaughan and Collingwood.
Later that summer, England put in another convincing performance, both against India and in the Champions Trophy. Solanki was recalled and initially looked at home, perhaps for the first time, with Vaughan dropping to three again. Vaughan did his best Solanki impersonation and played 2 excellent innings in 3 games, against India and Australia. Collingwood played a single good innings against India to re-establish his name as a fixture. Harmison’s excellent form continued. Giles returned to the side (bowling his first spell for over a year), and excelled to a level he had never previously attained in ODIs. Gough, however, had been poorly used for much of the summer and often followed an excellent opening spell with a poor later one. When he bowled dreadfully for two games in succession to end the summer, many were prepared to write his obituaries as an England player. Most remarkable of all, however, was the elevation of Alex Wharf to the top level, one of the most baffling pieces of selection ever. Essentially, it was a selection based on a single game (Wharf had taken 6 for 5 a week earlier), when he had been a distinctly poor county bowler for a lengthy career. Both Johnson and Anderson had now been usurped. Nonetheless, England reached the Champions Trophy final, and were only denied victory by one of the most incredible fightbacks in the history of ODI cricket. At that stage, a planned team for the next 2-and-a-half years might have looked something like this:
Still, only one slot appeared vacant, and Gough did retain his place for the winter tour.
When that series, against South Africa, started, however, a Test series had once again interfered. Not only was Flintoff unfit (he was essentially replaced by Kevin Pietersen, who had been waiting in the wings for qualification for some time), but Matthew Hoggard, like Harmison a year earlier, had been picked on the basis of excellent form in Tests despite having an extremely poor ODI record (and having last played prior to the 2003 Cup). Harmison, too, was now out of favour after an appalling Test series, and was usurped (as had Anderson, Johnson and Wharf been) by Kabir Ali, as well as Hoggard. In the end, all four (Anderson was well out of the picture by now after a terrible Test) had appalling series, though Kabir did have 2 good games. Gough, on the other hand, roared back to form, producing superb displays on two greasy surfaces and adequate displays on flatter surfaces. Giles, too, just about maintained credit. The batting, however, with the exception of the effervescent Pietersen, and Vaughan, was execrable: the experiment with Jones at the top of the order was resumed, this time as an opener (it met with little success); this meant Solanki was initially dropped in favour of the strokeless Ian Bell, though this was eventually reversed when Vaughan missed a game through injury; Trescothick, Collingwood and the at-four Strauss could barely buy a run; nor could Bell, completely out of position at six and seven; and Solanki on his return to the middle-order did not nail down a spot and was clearly a prime contender for the axe upon the return of Flintoff. Pietersen, on the other hand, had instantly become a nailed-on-certainty.
The following summer saw a performance that was repeatedly reflected upon as a triumph. Before we dissect it, let’s understand it aright: England played 7 ODIs against Australia and lost just 3-2 (1 tie and 1 NR), and subsequently won The Ashes in fine style. It’s easy to forget, therefore, that one of those victories (and, for that matter, the tie) was a comeback none too far short of West Indies’ at The Oval the previous season, and the NR was a game Australia were comfortably in the driving-seat in. Much satisfaction, too, was derived from the fact that the much-derided experiment with Jones at the top was abandoned, along with Strauss at four (he was returned to his natural opening slot), and that the attack contained (usurping Kabir Ali – not to mention Wharf, Anderson and Johnson) Simon Jones, who was by now established in the Test team. This meant that the team resembled the Test team somewhat, something many had been calling-for for a while.
Then we come to the actual performance. It was easy to miss, what with games against Bangladesh in between, but Strauss and Collingwood actually achieved little; nor, with the ball, did Simon Jones or, in their 1 game, Jonathan Lewis and Chris Tremlett; Vaughan and Geraint Jones were far from convincing; and Gough (though this probably pleased more people than it disappointed) was after the first 2 games very poor. Giles, too, continued as he left-off in South Africa, and just about managed to contain well enough. Trescothick, Pietersen, Flintoff and Harmison, however, performed sufficiently well to convince people that their parts in The Ashes would be as was being expected (which, in all bar the last, turned-out to be true). An XI anticipated for the next year-et-demi now probably looked something like this:
In Pakistan, however, the problems really started. Vaughan, Giles, Simon Jones and Pietersen all suffered injuries and were ruled-out of all or the greater part of the series. Ian Blackwell stepped back in as a like-for-like replacement for Giles, and Anderson came back into the picture for Jones. The supersub ruling probably confused more than it benefited, and fortunately this proved the only full series where England were affected by it: Solanki and Bell were both parachuted into the fray when the cause was long since lost and merely had the chance to look ridiculous. Strauss, Collingwood and Geraint Jones continued to do nothing with the bat; Harmison and, for the most part, Anderson (plus Kabir Ali in his 1 game when he replaced Harmison) returned to more familiar ways of going round the park. To compound all this, however, two utter follies of selection were made in the elevation of Liam Plunkett and Matthew Prior, two cricketers whose careers bore many similarities to Wharf’s, the only difference being that they were shorter. Neither had achieved anything of note in domestic-one-day cricket, and unsurprisingly both were exposed as woefully below par. To make matters worse, Prior (as with Vaughan in West Indies) usurped Strauss’ opening slot for no good reason and pushed him down to three again. This would probably have continued in the second-leg had Trescothick not been ruled-out (a grevious, and soon to be ongoing, blow). Blackwell, however, managed a haul in the last game that kept his head at the front of the queue.
In the second-leg, in India, things got worse still. Trescothick, Vaughan, Giles, Simon Jones and Harmison were now all missing; the replacement seamers (the long-lost Mahmood was recalled; Plunkett got another go; Hoggard was given yet another chance; Kabir Ali played once more; and Anderson kept going) proved every bit as wayward, even when several pitches offered some help, as those they were replacing; Solanki and Prior continued to do nothing of note, and Owais Shah, playing for the first time since before the 2003 Cup, fared even worse. In the latter stages, however, Collingwood and Geraint Jones’ fortunes took an upward turn for the first time in their careers, and Strauss’ for the first time in 2 years. Bell played 2 innings as an opener and could have done worse, while Pietersen with bat and Flintoff with ball continued to excel for the most part. The follies of selection were compounded by follies of fanship: common was the excuse that the ODIs were after the Tests (this excuse had been made in each of the last 3 away series), so no-one really cared. Apparently. Being rubbish at something is an easy way to make indifference seem apparent.
In the first-leg of the summer, at least that excuse could not be used, though injuries still abounded: Vaughan, Giles and Simon Jones’ continuous absences, well, continued, and Kabir Ali, Mahmood, Plunkett and the latest nonsense selection, Tim Bresnan (who had done even less than anyone else to get picked), had their shortcomings exposed more ruthlessly than ever before. So, for that matter, did Harmison, and possibly only missing the season through injury prevented the same happening to Anderson and Blackwell. Instead, Jamie Dalrymple (and, in 1 game, Alex Loudon) came into the picture, and performed better with the ball (in both cases their weaker suit) than could have been expected. Dalrymple’s batting was composed, and despite the failures of Jones (yet again) and Strauss (yet again – whether opening or at four), Trescothick returned (temporarily) to the fray and seemed recovered; Solanki (yet again) and Alastair Cook made fleeting, moderately successful, appearances; and Collingwood and Bell’s good form of the latter half of the India tour just about continued. Nonetheless, a 0-5 drubbing resounded large.
Against Pakistan later in the summer, the merry roundabout continued, and indeed reached new levels of absurdity: Michael Yardy leapfrogged Loudon in the useless-batsman-part-time-spinner slot; Rikki Clarke got another utterly inexplicable recall with predictable results; the stupid-pick for the seamer’s slot came around to Stuart Broad; a promising middle-order batsman in Edmund Joyce was inexplicably picked as an opener once Trescothick withdrew for possibly the last time; Read might have got his place back but only because Jones had been dropped from the Test team; and Gough returned but got injured before having the chance to bowl at a Pakistan on the slippery slope downwards. This was something not denied to Mahmood, and at the 10th attempt (surely a record) produced a credible performance after 8 of the worst spells you could ever wish to see in a ODI. Strauss and Collingwood continued to perform sufficiently well to hold off any calls for heads; and Bell grew well into the spot left by Vaughan that Prior had so abysmally failed to fill. Dalrymple’s form with the bat dropped off, however, though in the last 2 games his and Yardy’s bowling, thanks to helpful surfaces, reached levels perhaps neither had ever achieved before. One small bright spot came in the impressive new-ball showings of the recalled Jonathan Lewis, though he also had late-innings moments to induce the cringing.
The Champions Trophy produced yet more hapless performances; Harmison returned, and bowed-out of ODI cricket in a fitting manner; Anderson also returned, and performed little better; Mahmood continued to bowl dreadfully; and the two batsmen-spinners’ economy seemed to exasperate more than please, as England were twice defending tiny totals where wickets were the order-of-the-day. In the batting, Bell stepped-up to open in India again, and as last time could have performed worse; Strauss’ solid form continued, and Collingwood’s likewise (at least until the last game); but Flintoff, Dalrymple, Yardy, Read and, until the last game, Pietersen, were abysmal. So things continued in the CB Series: Vaughan made his long-awaited return but almost immediately picked-up a completely new injury; Pietersen went home after 1 game; the “attacking” Monty Panesar leapfrogged the “defensive” batsmen-spinner Yardy (and Blackwell, and Giles); Lewis and Anderson’s relatively impressive performance were stopped in their tracks when both picked-up injuries, allowing Plunkett and Tremlett to once again showcase their lack of talents (it could just as easily have been Mahmood, Wharf had he been in the squad, or Harmison had he not retired); Strauss and Collingwood’s wretched form continued (and Bell joined-in for posterity), and the selections of Mal Loye and Paul Nixon, despite actually having some credibility for various reasons, baffled more than they contented. Joyce, meanwhile, seemed well set to take over Solanki’s role of being thrown up and down the order (and then dropped when the big-guns came back).
All-in-all, in short, England’s planning, while being badly disrupted by forces outside their control, left plenty to be desired. The cases of Pietersen and Joyce, proven domestic players both, required the waiting-game to be played due to qualification requirements – had both been available in 2003, maybe things might have been different. Injuries caused more and more disruption as things went on: virtually never, for example, did Trescothick, Pietersen and Flintoff have the chance to appear in the same team; and injuries to substandard players perhaps denied the management the chance to discover their inadequacies.
But when you pick such poorly-qualified candidates over the head of better ones (is there really any excuse for Usman Afzaal, with a one-day average in the high 30s, not to have played a single ODI? Or the continued ignoring of not merely Lewis but Mark Ealham, Robin Martin-Jenkins, Dimitri Mascarenhas and, hell, even Neil Killeen?) you’re simply asking for trouble.