Being an England sports fan has been particularly trying over the past few days.
The never-ending saga surrounding John Terry and the fallout from the FA’s decision to remove him from the captaincy has been impossible to escape from and has totally overshadowed events taking pace on the field. Over the past couple of years, the malaise of our footballers has usually been offset by the triumphs of our cricket team but the last few weeks have forced the number one ranked team in the world to experience a sobering dose of reality.
While England losing a test series against a Pakistan team featuring the likes of Saeed Ajmal and Younis Khan might not be a shock in itself, the manner of defeat has certainly been alarming. The 3-0 defeat was the first time that a series whitewash had ever been suffered against this opposition and the fact that matches two and three were lost after England had assumed the upper hand in each was particularly disappointing.
Defeat in the series opener in Dubai could possibly be excused by England’s prolonged inactivity in the longer form of the game since dismantling India on home soil last summer and coach Andy Flower has admitted that preparations were not as good as they could have been, rightly shouldering responsibility for that error. However, a squad-wide inability to play spin bowling is a much more endemic concern. That lack of technique was exposed in the first test and then both highlighted and underlined in Abu Dhabi when England had dominated for three days and required just 145 to win on day four only to be dismissed for 72. If that defeat felt like it couldn’t be equalled, the loss within four days in the third test after bowling Pakistan out for 99 in the first innings was just as disturbing. Had Misbah-ul-Haq been able to call upon the services of banned seaming duo Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif, who knows how much worse the scenario might have looked?
No blame can be attributed to England’s bowlers who – with the notable exception of Graeme Swann, clearly usurped as the world’s best spinner by Ajmal – performed with huge determination and skill throughout. Instead, fingers have to be pointed at those that have excelled with the willow in their hands during the past 18 months, especially Ian Bell, Kevin Pietersen and (an innings of 94 in the second test aside) Alastair Cook.
But before demands are made for wholesale changes, the players that hauled the nation to summit of world cricket whilst inflicting three innings victories against Australia on their own patch and two more against India in a 4-0 whitewash must be afforded the opportunity to restore their momentarily dented reputations. Reality checks such as these can be valuable as they ensure players remain grounded as they strive for excellence. It dismisses complacency and focuses desire. Unlike their predecessors, this team has not been brought up on a diet of damaging defeats so self-doubt is unlikely to consume them. A team that can go to Australia and both out-perform and out-muscle their mortal enemy should be able to recover from this chastening experience and I efully xpect them to do so on their next excursion to Sri Lanka.
On the other end of the scale, the rugby union team is at the beginning of its journey having been purged of negativity following the disappointing showing at the World Cup. Stuart Lancaster’s fresh-faced team recorded an eye-opening victory over Scotland at Murrayfield that may have not been one for the purists but set a decent foundation for the bold new era ahead. A matchday squad of 22 featuring no less than eight uncapped players had almost every expert – bar the bookmakers, it must be noted – predicting a win for the Auld Enemy only for inexperience to triumph in adversity.
It was not a pretty performance and there are certainly some key issues to sort out. The back row was as ineffective as it has been for some years though a degree of leeway can be afforded considering captain Chris Robshaw and number eight Phil Dowson boasted just one cap between them prior to kick off in Edinburgh. A lack of precision in key areas of the field – an unwanted legacy from Autumn’s debacle in New Zealand – was also a common frustration as was the scarcity of ball for speedsters Chris Ashton, Ben Foden and David Strettle.
On the plus side, centre Brad Barritt was huge in defence as was Mouritz Botha even if the South Africa-born lock caused more harm than good when England were on the front foot. Charlie Hodgson had an assured game at fly-half with his kicking from hand vastly superior to that of his opposite number, Dan Parks, and Alex Corbisiero’s performance ensured that Andrew Sheridan’s absence through injury would not be missed. Add absentees Manu Tuilagi, Toby Flood, Tom Wood and Courtney Lawes to the mix and the future looks bright
The visit of Italy to Twickenham this weekend provides another opportunity to take a forward step. As with their cricketing counterparts, let’s hope they take it.