Alastair Cook and his team-mates look dejected after the series loss
© Getty Images

Essay

The red-headed stepchild

Another World Cup, another humiliation in prospect for England. Why are they so bad at one-day internationals, and does the public care?

Jonathan Liew  |  

I can pinpoint the moment when my patience for England's one-day team finally ran out. It was during the Sri Lanka series in December, a series England deservedly lost 5-2. At some stage, while watching the final game, with England's batsmen wafting and whinnying their way towards an inevitably unreachable target, I fell asleep.

I'm not exactly sure how long I dozed off for, but when I woke up Alastair Cook was still batting, so it can't have been long. I felt bad for falling asleep, but then I remembered that John Arlott had done something similar during a Sunday League game in the 1970s, while he was commentating on it for the BBC. For some minutes the only sounds being broadcast were ambient crowd noise and light breathing. Finally Arlott came to his senses - or was very possibly shaken awake - and with perfect composure leaned forward and remarked: "The last four overs were nondescript and did not deserve comment."

As we dwindling band of English cricket lovers sleepwalk our way towards another humiliating early World Cup exit - spoiler alert! - the question recurs. Why are we so bad at this? Why do we always seem so flummoxed at big tournaments, as if they are unexpected guests ringing the doorbell at 8am? And moreover, why do we care so little about them?

At all levels we are dropped subtle hints that one-day cricket may not quite be the top prize in the arcade. Graeme Swann calls for ODIs to be scrapped; Kevin Pietersen tries to retire from them to prolong his longevity in the other two formats. The England career of Mark Butcher (71 Tests, zero ODIs) is generally seen as a success, while the England career of Owais Shah (71 ODIs, six Tests) is generally seen as a giant waste. Jos Buttler states, "Test cricket has been my ultimate goal for the whole of my career." Alex Hales states, "Test cricket is the priority." It would somehow feel sacrilegious for a player, even Hales, to say anything else.

One-day cricket in England was inevitably seen as a dirty uncouth Heathcliff besmirching the pristine floors of Wuthering Heights and ripping the family asunder

Perhaps success has something to do with it. While the Test team soared to the top of the world rankings in 2011, and the T20 side won a World Cup the previous year, the 50-over side remains a curious void - a tale of nearly, not quite, not at all, and occasionally not that fussed. At which point we should probably point out that England did ascend the top of the one-day world rankings in late 2012, but nobody really took that too seriously. Even Cook admitted he found it a bit weird.

Ali Brown still remembers reading a report in the Times of his first-ever one-day international innings in 1996. Two months earlier, Sri Lanka had won the World Cup after revolutionising the way teams approached batting in one-day cricket. Making full use of the 15-over fielding restrictions, Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana attacked from the very start, seizing the initiative and demoralising the opposition's best bowlers. Pinch-hitting was nothing new - England's experiment with Phil DeFreitas as an opener lasted a little over 48 hours - but these were proper batsmen playing like Sunday buffers.

Now England wanted to copy them. So they called on one of the most destructive batsmen in the county game. On a soggy May morning at The Oval, Brown struggled early on but still managed to swipe and slash his way to a scratchy 37. So the following day, this is how the Times recalled it:

"If Brown had appeared on a one-wheeled bike, wearing a silly hat and a red nose, and thrown custard pies at the umpires, he would scarcely have struck a more ridiculous figure than he did yesterday."

Almost two decades on, Brown reflects again on those words.

Would someone who scored 268 in a one-dayer, like Ali Brown did, have played only 16 ODIs if he were from another country?

Would someone who scored 268 in a one-dayer, like Ali Brown did, have played only 16 ODIs if he were from another country? © Getty Images

"That," he says after some thought, "is an indication of how we are here in terms of change."

Why have England never won a World Cup? You could pick out moments in time: the Mike Gatting reverse sweep in the 1987 final, the lbw that Derek Pringle didn't get in 1992, the moment Vince Wells was selected in 1999. Or you could pick out boring stats, like the one about England playing only 12 ODIs in the six months before the 2011 World Cup, when history indicates you need at least 16.

But if you boil it down to fundamentals, World Cups are won by teams playing at the outer limits of their abilities, delving deep within their reserves to find that little bit extra when it matters. There comes a point in any sport when merely "executing your skill sets" is not enough. When all fear of failure must be banished.

"With one-day cricket," Brown says, "you must never fear failure. As soon as you fear failure, you're not going to be successful. The one thing we need to do is be positive at the top of the order to get ahead of the game."

Brown now coaches at Surrey but he stands as a monument to England's ambivalent relationship with genius. His 268 from 160 balls for Surrey against Glamorgan at The Oval in 2002 remains the highest one-day score in the world. He played 16 ODIs but never more than four in a row and none following his double-hundred. He scored a century - one of only ten scored by England openers in the whole of the 1990s - and was immediately dropped. "It was almost as if the die had been cast," he says. "I felt I never really had the backing of the selectors. I always felt I was a couple of innings away from getting dropped again."

English cricket, it seems, was simply not ready for Brown's cyclonic winds of change. Which is hardly surprising when you consider that his debut was also the first one-day international to be played in England under the new 50-over format, with just one interval between innings. The word "new" is somewhat relative in this context; this form of cricket had, in fact, been the standard in every country but England since the late 1970s.

England are a team in need of a theme, a basic idea, an identity around which they can unite. They need to banish their mortal fear of failure

Let's put that another way. While everybody else was playing the 50-over game you're familiar with today, in England we were still playing 55-over games with a break for lunch, the rest of the first innings, straight into the second innings, and then a break for tea. And it took almost two decades before anybody in charge of English cricket realised how utterly ridiculous that was.

Arlott hated one-day cricket. He described it as "vaudeville", a game "more remote in character from first-class cricket than a children's game of rounders". He scoffed that future innovations might see cover-point wearing roller skates. Arlott was a brilliant commentator but he epitomised a cricketing culture that saw the shorter form as an ugly stepbrother. Even the etymology gives the game away: to this day, university cricket can still be described as "first-class" but Rohit Sharma's 264 cannot.

When "The First-Class Counties Knock-Out Competition for the Gillette Cup" made its debut in 1963 - catchy name, fellas - Neville Cardus begged for it to be called "snicket" or "slogget", anything other than "cricket". When the first-ever one-day international was played between Australia and England in 1971, Wisden all but ignored it. Right from the very start, one-day cricket in England was inevitably seen as something ersatz, something lesser, something vulgar, something grubby; a dirty, uncouth Heathcliff besmirching the pristine floors of Wuthering Heights and ripping the entire family asunder.

Fans of the new format were treated with equal contempt, even though their money was effectively saving the game. Writing in Wisden in 1974, Gordon Ross claimed that one-day spectators were not true cricket supporters, sneering that the thousands who flocked to Lord's to watch the Gillette Cup final "might have come just the same if it had been any one of half a dozen sports".

Blame Gatt: would the fortunes of ODI cricket in England have been different if he hadn't played his reverse sweep in the 1987 final?

Blame Gatt: would the fortunes of ODI cricket in England have been different if he hadn't played his reverse sweep in the 1987 final? Patrick Eagar / © Getty Images

Any of this sound familiar? Three decades later, these were the same arguments being advanced against T20, even though at a financial level it served a similarly redemptive function. It exposes a curiously binary attitude that runs through English cricket: we don't necessarily like you, but we'll happily take your money all the same.

Of course England were far from alone in their suspicion of the new game. Australia were perhaps even more reluctant to adopt it in its early days. "I'm not the bloke to captain these matches," Ian Chappell said during an early one-day series in 1972. "I don't give a damn about them."

But fate intervened. Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket may have been a financial revolution but it was an aesthetic revolution too: floodlit cricket, batting helmets, coloured kit, fielding restrictions. To accept something new you have to see it differently to what went before, and while a generation of Australians was introduced to one-day cricket as a Technicolor tamasha of noise and glamour and Michael Holding, in England it was still a sort of sporting Diet Coke - packaged slightly differently to the original, but if you weren't paying attention, you'd scarcely notice the difference.

By the mid-1980s, the fortunes of the two countries could not have parted more dramatically. As Australia began to assemble their World Cup-winning side, the Test and County Cricket Board had set up a commission to investigate the parlous state of English cricket. When the Palmer Enquiry reported in 1986, it blamed the decline of the England Test team on one-day cricket, conveniently ignoring the fact that one-day cricket was also something the England team liked to dabble in now and again.

Arlott hated one-day cricket. He described it as "vaudeville", a game "more remote in character from first-class cricket than a children's game of rounders"

I was interested in getting a marketing man's view of 50-over cricket, so I called Steve Elworthy, who was a fast bowler of repute for South Africa and these days is one of the leading event managers in the sport. The three most brilliant international tournaments of recent years have been the 2007 and 2009 World T20s and the 2013 Champions Trophy. Elworthy organised all of them.

So how does he approach the 50-over game? "It's a pretty easy format to market," he says. "Eight hours, a fantastic day out in the sun, being able to dip in and out of the game, being able to follow stuff on social media. You'll have a lot of possible T20 spectators who come for a great day out, but you're still going to have your die-hard cricket fans. It has the proper ebb and flow."

Elworthy loves the 50-over game as you suspect only a non-Englishman can. "Attendances really tell you the story," he enthuses. "And 50-over cricket is still one of the best-attended formats in the game. Twenty-over cricket is supported well at domestic level but international T20 games are few and far between. If you see how full stadiums are around the world, the fans are the ones who will tell you how popular it is. I think it's still a very healthy format."

Time for the big question, then. Elworthy played four Test matches and 39 ODIs. If he had the chance to swap those numbers around, would he? Elworthy thinks for a moment.

"Obviously I would love to have played more Test cricket," he says eventually. "But you ask any player who's played in a World Cup, or won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, and it's very difficult to beat those."

You literally couldn't imagine an England player ever saying that. And not just because we've never won a Commonwealth Games.

Steve Elworthy:

Steve Elworthy: "ODI cricket is a pretty easy format to market." (Except in England, maybe) © Getty Images

India's World Cup triumph in 1983 awakened the potential of a sleeping giant, paving the way for the remarkable generation that emerged a decade later. Sri Lanka's win in 1996 lifted a fractured nation, transforming the finances and self-perception of the sport. What will England's one-day legacy be? Stolid, slightly depressing underperformance? The slower-ball bouncer? The inadequate fifth seamer?

The truth is, we are still searching. England are a team in need of a theme, a basic idea, an identity around which they can unite. They need to banish their mortal fear of failure. More than anything, they need to find some way of detaching the 50-over game from its longer and shorter cousins. Perhaps, on reflection, they should have called it "snicket" after all.

And yet, perhaps there is little point in expecting change to emerge out of half a century of conservatism. The more likely scenario, surely, is the slow fade. At the turn of the year, tickets were still available for all ten of next summer's one-dayers against Australia and New Zealand. Before long, English one-day cricket may once more be returned to a state of ambient noise and occasional light breathing; a flickering screen in front of a nation whose eyelids are already dropping.

Jonathan Liew writes on sport for the Telegraph

 

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