English sport teetering on edge between glory & usual failures

Now that the final pre-tournament friendly has been played, all eyes in England are focussed on their first match of Euro 2016. The meeting with Russia in the renovated yet still iconic Stade Velodrome in Marseilles on the evening on Saturday 11th June will command the nation’s attention and will provide the first evidence as to whether Roy Hodgson’s youthful, attack-minded side will prove to be a bright new dawn or whether English hopes continue to resemble a flickering candle destined to be extinguished by the first testing gust of wind.

This nervous expectation on the eve of a major tournament is nothing new for football fans and it is a trait that is also shared across the country’s principal sports. Last autumn’s Rugby World Cup saw Stuart Lancaster’s vibrant young team enter their opening game against Fiji as contenders to lift the trophy and the most fancied of all the northern hemisphere sides due to the advantage of playing on home soil. Instead, a nervous opening win over the Pacific island nation was followed by consecutive defeats to those perennial rivals Wales and Australia. While other countries struggled to contain their schadenfreude, England became the first host nation to exit the competition in the pool stage, Lancaster lost his job and it was back to the drawing board.

Two years earlier, the England cricket team had travelled to Australia for the second of two back-to-back test series. Having already won 3-0 at home in the summer, they had the opportunity to make history by being the first England team since 1890 to win four consecutive Ashes series and the first to win consecutive series down under since 1888. Confidence was high and reputations were soaring but a dogged Australia side, led by pugnacious coach Darren Lehmann and surfing a wave of patriotism provided by a typically fierce local public and press, had different ideas. The result was a 5-0 whitewash to Australia amid a shambolic chain of events that claimed the international careers of Jonathan Trott, Graeme Swann and Kevin Pietersen.

The bursting of bubbles and the exposure of hubris – such as Sir Ian Botham’s prediction at the start of 2013 that England would win the dual test series 10-0 – is one of the greatest traits of sport. Without it, the endeavours would become predictable and thus boring though it does seem that England struggle more with maintaining a high level and achieving expectations than many other nations.

In football, Germany, Italy, Brazil and Argentina are traditionally never far away from the action when the big prizes are being handed out. Each might suffer the odd cataclysm such as Italy failing to make it out of their group in either of the last two World Cups or Brazil being thumped 7-1 at their own tournament in 2014. The flipside though is that in roughly the same time period Italy also won the World Cup in 2006 and reached the final of Euro 2012, while Brazil’s thumping took place in a semi final, a stage that England have only reached twice in their entire World Cup history.

The All Blacks used to be considered “chokers” due to the fact that they had lifted only one Rugby World Cup prior to 2011. The fact that they have been almost invincible at home – Wales have never won in the Land of the Long White Cloud; neither Ireland or Scotland have ever beaten them anywhere – and have completely dominated the Tri-Nations/Rugby Championship since its inception didn’t seem to be taken into account. They duly put the record straight by winning consecutive Rugby World Cups in 2011 and 2015. As for cricket, the West Indies enjoyed an extended period of dominance from the late 1970s to the early 1990s before handing the mantle over to Australia who, under the captaincy of Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, crushed almost all before them for the next decade and a half.

In all three sports, England have enjoyed short passages of pre-eminence though it rarely seems to happen concurrently across the sporting spectrum. When England reclaimed the “little urn” in 1985 and Diego Maradona had to resort to using the “Hand of God” to eliminate Bobby Robson’s plucky troupe from the 1986 World Cup, the RFU were presiding over a particularly fallow period in English rugby that extended through the 1980s. When the football and rugby teams were making inroads in the early to mid-1990s – by reaching major semi finals and winning grand slams, respectively – the cricket team were plumbing new depths and stinking the place out. When Brian Ashton’s rugby team surprisingly got to the 2007 World Cup, their achievement was bookended by a 5-0 thumping in the Ashes and failure to qualify for Euro 2008.

Complete national sporting harmony has proved elusive though there has been the odd occasion when the stars have aligned across the three disciplines. The 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph, orchestrated by Sir Clive Woodward and inspired by Jonny Wilkinson and Martin Johnson, came about just as Sven Goran Eriksson’s “golden generation” were coming into bloom and really should have won Euro 2004 but for some unfortunate officiating and untimely injuries. Meanwhile, the cricketers, under the guidance of Nasser Hussain and then Michael Vaughan, were inching their way back to respectability, a journey that culminated in a first Ashes series win for 18 years in 2005.

Now, in 2016, might just be another of those times. The appointment of Trevor Bayliss, along with able deputy Paul Farbrace, brought the urn back into English hands with last summer’s Ashes victory rubber-stamped by a series win in South Africa and a resurgence in white ball cricket that saw them fall agonisingly short of glory in the World Twenty20 final. Eddie Jones’ insertion as Lancaster’s replacement by the RFU has seen the team respond by winning the Grand Slam for the first time since the would-be world champions did so in 2003. Roy Hodgson’s men might not credibly be destined to triumph at Euro 2016 (even if the nation’s bookmakers have installed them as fourth favourites due to the inevitable surge of optimism from patriotic punters) but their 100% record in qualifying and three wins out of three in their warm-up matches signal a possible upturn in fortunes for the Three Lions and hope for an extended run in the tournament.

All three sides share similar qualities. There is more than a smattering of youth in each with Maro Itoje, Joe Root and Harry Kane all sizing up to be part of the next generation of genuinely world-class performers (though in Root’s case, with a test average of almost 55 and proficient in all three forms of the game, one could legitimately argue he is already there). Bayliss, Lancaster and Hodgson are also picking teams to play to their strengths rather than worrying too much about the opposition. Bayliss has allowed his players to express themselves more freely which has unleashed the beast inside Ben Stokes and the technician in Jonny Bairstow, while quietly enabling Moeen Ali to nurture the development of his off-spin. Hodgson is using the callow nature of his squad to his advantage by not inhibiting them too much and not holding their youth against them with the fast-tracking of Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford revealing his mindset. Over at Twickenham, Jones has returned England to their traditional physical game with forward dominance augmented by incisive back play being the key mantra.

Each have clear areas of strength within the side, laying the foundation for the rest of the team to work around. For Jones it is the second row where Itoje, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury boast the strongest collection of locks in Europe, arguably the world. Bayliss can call upon a middle order of power and fitness in Root, Stokes and Bairstow while Hodgson has – in Kane, Rashford, Jamie Vardy, Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge – an array of strikers in red-hot form and largely unscarred by previous tournament nightmares.

They do, however, all have clear areas of weakness as well. The top order is still a work in progress with Nick Compton yet to nail down the number three spot and Alex Hales slowly getting to grips with the discipline needed to succeed in the test arena. With captain and team anchor Alistair Cook having not reached three figures since scoring a magnificent 263 against Pakistan eight months and eight test matches ago, there is a certain fragility that can be exposed at the beginning of every innings. It has become alarming just how many times the team have found themselves four or five wickets down with less than a hundred on the board in the last 18 months.

For the rugby team, the main zone of contention is in the centre where so many options have been tried and tested in the past couple of years without settling on a definitive partnership. The lack of continuity has resulted in little familiarity despite some real quality to call upon. Jonathan Joseph, Brad Barritt, Sam Burgess, Luther Burrell, Manu Tuilagi, Henry Slade, Billy Twelvetrees and Owen Farrell are all among the individuals that have been drafted into the back line at some point in recent memory. Yet despite the differing and complementary qualities of each of these players the right balance has yet to be struck and it is imperative that Jones solves this problem if England are going to keep progressing and hope to challenge the supremacy of the southern hemisphere.

Strangely, the football team’s point of weakness has come in defence, a part of the team that traditionally has been a strength. Not too long ago the likes of Sol Campbell and Jamie Carragher would be consigned to the substitutes’ bench as John Terry and Rio Ferdinand commanded the centre of defence with Gary Neville and Ashley Cole outside them. Now the likely back four to start against Russia in Euro 2012 is Chris Smalling, Gary Cahill, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, all good players but none close to being world class. John Stones might eventually get there and this could well be a formative tournament for him but he is yet to prove his talent on the big stage.

When it comes to genuinely accepted world stars, the cricket team are much further down the line than their football and rugby counterparts. In James Anderson they currently have the bowler ranked number one in the world, somebody that has surpassed 450 test wickets and arguably the greatest fast bowler England have ever produced. Cook sits 12th on the list of all-time test run scorers and is the first Englishman to pass 10,000 test runs. At 31 and several years still ahead of him, barring injury, he is destined to add many more with even a conservative estimate of 2,500 further runs taking him above Kumar Sangakkara and into fifth place behind just Rahul Dravid, Jacques Kallis, Ricky Ponting and Sachin Tendulkar. Stuart Broad is third in the ICC test bowling rankings having just ceded top place to Anderson and is also third in the list of all-time English bowlers with 343 wickets. With him having taken wickets at a similar rate to his fellow seamer throughout his career and being just 29 he will certainly pass 400 with possibly many more to follow.

Those individuals have had the benefit of time and experience as well as being afforded the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. Both Hodgson and Jones have prodigious talents on their hands and it is vital that they, or their successors, allow them to develop in a similar way rather than jettison them at the first sign of trouble.

Ultimately though, players have to be tested in a pressure cooker environment and Euro 2016 will provide exactly that for Roy Hodgson’s squad. Swatting aside fragile opponents in a generous qualifying group is one thing, performing against the continent’s best teams in the cauldron of a summer tournament is another matter entirely. In this regard, the footballers have it much tougher than their counterparts in the other sports. The global saturation of the beautiful game means that there are countless viable opponents with previously unsung nations constantly emerging and displaying immense talent.

Cricket and rugby union, for all their ambitions to spread the game to new corners of the world, is much more of a closed shop with less than ten countries playing the sport at any kind of competitive level in either. Theoretically, reaching the summit of the sport should be much easier in cricket and rugby even if a solitary World Cup win by any northern hemisphere side and a single victory at a global cricket competition (the 2010 World Twenty20) would suggest otherwise. The pre-eminence of the All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies as well as the emergence of the Pumas of Argentina means that England’s rugby team have had their wings clipped on more occasions than they would care to remember. The variety of playing conditions in different parts of the world as well as the different balls used in certain countries (England uses a Dukes ball, Australia a Kookaburra ball and India a SG ball) means that players from each country generally develop contrasting skill sets that do not always translate from one environment to another.

Nevertheless, England’s football, rugby and cricket teams will all find themselves under the microscope in challenging situations in the coming months. Euro 2016 will examine the credentials of Hodgson’s fearless young side in June – and hopefully July if they make it to the quarter finals – while Jones takes his team to his native Australia for a three match series. With Michael Cheika having overseen a renaissance in the Wallabies, much like Lehmann has done for his nation’s cricketers, and having infamously plotted England’s downfall at Twickenham last October, this will be a real barometer of how far the Red Rose has recovered from the trauma of the Rugby World Cup.

Bayliss’ charges have already won the test series with Sri Lanka with one match to play and will be hopeful of turning over Pakistan when they come to England later in the summer. Looming on the horizon, however, is the winter tour to India, perhaps the toughest examination for an English cricketer due to the stark differences in climate, pitch conditions, food and culture as well as the sheer mania that surrounds the sport on the sub-continent. Australia might generally be the team to beat due to their continually high standards and the nature of the rivalry but winning a series in India is an incredibly arduous task. That said, England returned victorious from their last tour to the country with Cook leading from the front with 562 runs in the four match series so maybe some lessons from that trip can be passed on to the younger members of the squad.

A last four appearance in France, a series win in Australia and a conquering of India’s slow pitches would all go a long way to increasing the feelgood factor that is threatening to permeate English sport. It is a lot to hope for and the likelihood of all three of those happening is extremely small given the self-destructive tendencies of English sporting teams. Even so, it pays to dream big and shoot for the stars. Otherwise, why compete at all.

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