A stock of explanations and excuses is a valuable bit of any cricketer’s kit and should be kept ready, stashed by bat, box and pads. “The sun was in my eyes. I couldn’t pick it up in this light. My foot slipped. Somebody was moving behind the sightscreen.”
England, who, after all, have had no shortage of practice at this, have used some particularly ripe examples over the years. Ian Botham blamed the rain that ruined their chances in a group match against Pakistan at the 1992 World Cup on the team chaplain, Andrew Wingfield Digby “You’re useless, you are,” Botham told him, “It’s not surprising there’s a worldwide movement in favour of Islam.”
That was when Ted Dexter was the chair of selectors. Dexter, who once explained away his late arrival for pre-season at Sussex by saying “I was fascinated by an adorable girl”, had a fine line in alibis himself. When England were thrashed in Caluctta in 1993, he announced he was going “to commission a report into pollution levels in Indian cities” (India’s environment minister replied that Dexter should “commission a report into the effect of pollution levels on the trajectories of India’s spinners” instead). And when England lost the Ashes in 1989 Dexter offered the deathless: “Venus may be in the wrong juxtaposition to somewhere else.”
Dexter had a rare flair for the form, though. These days (if not always) a lot of the explanations, excuses and arguments about what went wrong are starting to sound tired and familiar. As if English cricket was turning circles while it tries to find the way ahead. On the one hand there are the pundits offering old bromides about a weak county game that fails to produce the particular cricketers the national team needs, and on the other, there are county fans who bounce the blame back on to the ECB’s mismanagement of the sport and their coaching set-up at junior and elite levels.
This winter the focus is on fast bowlers, because England’s batsmen have been skinned by three of them. Steven Finn touched on the issues when he was doing some charity work for Chance to Shine last week. He picked out the pitches, which are “a bit of a pancake because people are scared of losing games”, and the workload, “when you play 12 months a year it can suck the pace out of you”, but defended the ECB’s national performance centre in Loughborough, where the coaches cannot seem to decide whether they should be teaching quick bowlers to stay fit or get fast.
The telling detail was what Finn had to say about the ECB’s recent changes to the playing conditions. Last winter it was not the lack of quick bowlers everyone was worrying about but the shortage of spinners, because England had been thrashed in India. The ECB had taken a step to fix exactly that problem earlier in the year, when they decided that in the championship visiting captains would have the choice of whether or not to bowl first. This was supposed to encourage counties to produce pitches that would bring spinners into the game as it wore on. And it worked.
The flip side, Finn explained, is that “we are trying to develop spinners in this country with the toss rules and not making pitches biased towards fast bowlers but I do think the slowness of the wickets discourages people from bowling fast.” Point being that in the attempt to fix one problem, the ECB has exacerbated another. Which is a pattern it is repeating on a larger scale.