Annus Maximus Horribilis – 2014 Reviewed

When England flew to Australia at the backend of 2013, I wasn’t sure what to think. We’d just won the Ashes 3-0 at home without playing particularly well and most people assumed we’d retain the urn with relative ease. Like drinking five pints on a Friday night, beating the canary yellows had become something of a habit – and a rather enjoyable one it was too. Annus Maximus Horribilis – 2014 Reviewed

Looking back it all seemed too easy. Andy Flower’s team won the 2013 summer Ashes in their sleep. A wake up call was long overdue, but for some reason none of us expected it to happen so brutally in what became a protracted and bitter winter of discontent.
Although I’d been whinging about England’s performances for some time – our bowl dry strategy was as dull as dust and Flower’s regime was stale – I never expected us to lose the Ashes 0-5 to a beleaguered outfit that was losing to just about everyone at the time.
Having said that, the warning signs were clearly there. The previous summer our bowlers had been flayed by the not so mighty Darren Sammy, Dinesh Ramdin and Tino Best. Meanwhile our batsmen were becoming less and less ruthless.
In the twelve months before the Ashes, all of our key batsmen’s averages were in decline. Cook, Pietersen and Trott used to boast averages in excess of fifty, but by the 2013 they were somewhere in the mid-forties. Collectively, the unit was struggling to amass 400 on a regular basis. Individual performances by Matt Prior in New Zealand papered over the cracks.
Without Ian Bell, the result of the summer Ashes might have been completely different. The team still didn’t look right to me. Something was wrong. However, I never thought we’d lose the return series so badly: I thought 2-2 was the likely outcome.
And then came Hurricane Mitch. The gorky pussycat with a comedy mo and a radar worse than Devon Malcolm’s suddenly metamorphosed into the second coming of Dennis Lillee. Power to you, Mitch. You didn’t half stick it to us.
The Ashes whitewash was as traumatic as it was unexpected. However, immediately afterwards things got worse … a lot worse …
When a side loses the Ashes 0-5, there is usually a changing of the guard: those responsible are vanquished and a new era begins.
It’s funny, but irrational optimism is often my consolation prize when things go disastrously wrong: a new management team comes in, new players are blooded, and I feel strangely energised. Hope is the antidote to despair. But this time the ECB crushed my hope within a matter of weeks.
As someone who admired Andy Flower but had become extremely exasperated at his methods (I was one of the voices crying out for five bowlers) it was a kick in the crotch when he remained an ECM employee. Change was needed but no coach worth his salt would join England with Flower overseeing things from afar.
It soon became apparent that nothing was really going to change at all. There was no Schofield type review; no root and branch reform; nothing; nada.
The first thing the ECB did was throw its weight behind the failed captain. Cook had been absolutely awful (as both batsman and captain) yet for some reason he was going to keep his job. Giles Clarke’s admission that he supported Cook because he came from the right sort of family must be an all time low for a board that presumably wants to be seen as progressive and modern in its thinking.
Even worse it looked as though Ashley Giles would ‘succeed’ Flower for a time. I found this idea absurd. Giles had done a poor job as England’s ODI coach, and appointing him would have represented continuity not the real change we desperately needed.
Although Giles took us to the final of the Champions Trophy (they say the same about Cook) our record in that competition was won three and lost two. That’s nothing special for a team with home advantage. What’s more, the cricket we played was anachronistic – building totals slowly and then relying on Buttler and Bopara to lift us to par totals.
The bottom line is that we didn’t deserve to win the Champions Trophy, and on reflection I’m glad we didn’t: it would have set back England’s one-day cricket for another decade. It would have confirmed the ostensible wisdom of archaic strategies.
When England lost to the Netherlands in the World T20 I was almost relieved. It meant that Giles, who was the archetypal ECB non-boat rocking committee man, would not be England’s coach. And then I saw on TV that Peter Moores was the new favourite …
I almost fainted when Moores was reappointed. My jaw dropped; my heart sank. As an Aston Villa fan it was tantamount to Doug Ellis buying the club back from Randy Lerner: let’s go back to the future with a proven bust.
I guessed Moores was reappointed because it had become impossible, in the wake of England’s dismal ODI and T20 results, for the ECB to hire their preferred non-boat rocking candidate. Moores was non-boat rocking candidate number two. Nobody at Lord’s seemed to care that he’d just got Lancashire relegated and still hadn’t won a limited overs trophy in his fifteen years as a professional coach.
In the meantime, of course, Paul Downton had been appointed MD of English cricket. Although some of my friends thought it would be an advantage to hire someone who had been outside cricket for nearly two decades (something about bringing a fresh perspective) I had my doubts. People who work in the City as lawyers usually work long hours. How much cricket had the bloke actually watched in the recent past? Not much judging by his first year in the job.
Thus far Paul Downton has been an unmitigated disaster. When he was appointed he gave an interview on Sky in which he enthused about his new role and talked about how privileged he was to be working alongside cricketing legends like Flower and Cook. This is where, in my opinion, things have gone so wrong: Downton was out of touch, star-struck, and took Flower’s word as gospel. He also bought into the myth that Alastair Cook is superhuman.
Having reflected on the Pietersen affair for many months (you can’t really ignore it as co-editor of this blog) I firmly believe that KP was sacked because Flower convinced Downton it was necessary. I’m sorry, but Flower was wrong. It was impossible for Flower to work with Pietersen, as their relationship had broken down, but it was not impossible for Pietersen to work with someone else. What’s more Flower was supposed to be moving on, so his rift with KP should have been irrelevant.
Although I could see some cricketing logic in Pietersen’s dismissal (he was getting older and suffering numerous injuries), I found the way the ECB handled matters abhorrent. Their distain for the fans seemed breathtaking. What’s more, their rationale made no sense: if the new era was all about developing young players, why drop a senior player who spent a long time mentoring the team’s young guns? As Michael Carberry and Monty Panesar recently pointed out (thus confirming the post-Ashes interviews with Stokes, Bairstow and Root), Pietersen was more than generous with his time in Australia. The young players liked him and needed him.
Flower seemingly wasn’t going to allow it though – and having decided to retain Cook and promote Flower, the ECB was only too happy to acquiesce. A scapegoat for the disastrous Ashes whitewash was needed and the ECB was only too happy to make that person Kevin Pietersen (the brash, abrasive South African who had always loved the IPL and been a thorn in their side for years).
The role of Downton was crucial in this process. Rather than seeing Flower for what he was: a good coach whose shelf life had expired, Downton saw him as some kind of cricketing oracle. He either wasn’t smart enough, or confident enough in his new role, to realise that Flower might have been deflecting responsibility for his own failures and had a personal axe to grind against Pietersen (whether this ill feeling was warranted or not).
Downton also apparently failed to consider that the team, especially the batting unit, could ill afford to lose another senior player after Swann and Trott’s international careers looked finished.
The decision to stand by Cook despite all evidence – his batting has been worked out to a large extent (no centuries in fifty nine innings in all forms) and his captaincy has been formulaic – demonstrates to me that Downton was incapable of thinking independently and simply bought into the Cook hype perpetuated by this blog’s least favourite journalists.
Cook is often presented as England’s answer to Sachin Tendulkar. If only this were true. His average in no better than Trott’s or Bell’s, and it’s marginally worse than Pietersen’s. Cook is not Tendulkar. He’s more like VVS Laxman: very good sometimes (one Ashes series in five) but a long way from great. I wonder if Downton has worked this out yet? England will need to see through the hype if the team is to make objective decisions going forward.
I am not, at this point, going to review every single series we’ve played in 2014. This is intended to be a review of the emotions experienced in 2014 rather than an extensive postmortem of the action. Besides, the dismal results since the Ashes speak for themselves:
Australia Test series – Lost 0-1 (the last test of the Ashes whitewash)
Australia ODI series – Lost 1-4
Australia T20 series – Lost 0-3
West Indies ODI series – Won 2-1
Sri Lanka ODI series – Lost 2-3
Sri Lanka T20 series – Lost 0-1
Sri Lanka Test series – Lost 0-1
India Test series – Won 3-1
India ODI series – Lost 1-3
India T20 series – Won 1-0
Sri Lanka ODI series – Lost 2-5
TOTAL: Won 3, lost 8.
The defeat to Sri Lanka at home was probably the low point of the year. Cook’s abysmal captaincy directly affected the result, and we lost the early summer test series for the first time in God knows how long. Sri Lanka won in all three forms of the game. Desperate stuff.
The only high point of the summer was the comeback against India in the tests. I think most of us realise, however, that this win came with caveats: the captain was still batting poorly and India had no backbone; Dhoni’s troops never win away for a reason. Losing to India would have been an utter disaster; beating them was expected. When a team achieves what it’s supposed to achieve, why celebrate as if it’s 2005 all over again?
What is more, the series showed the growing disconnect between the mainstream cricket media and the fans. What was reported rarely reflected what we all saw. Many journalists seemed desperate to be Cook and ECB apologists. Objectivity went out of the window – perhaps because the media had a strained relationship with Pietersen and / or were enamoured with Cook’s more approachable personality. Either way, many of them helped to spread stories about Pietersen that were not compatible with what many of his former teammates (who were actually in the dressing room) seemed to be saying on Twitter. Some of these stories were demonstrably false; therefore a credibility gap emerged. It hasn’t done English cricket any good.
In terms of individual players who enhanced their reputations this year, Root, Ballance and Moeen obviously spring to mind. One hopes they can maintain their impressive form against top test class opposition in the coming year. If they can’t, England will be in deep poop.
The flip side of this success was the regression made by a number of other young players. Ben Stokes, who we all hoped would bring balance to The Force, has gone from hero to scrapheap. This is a massive blemish on the new management’s CV. Sam Robson, Steve Finn and Alex Hales have also had disappointing years.
However, rather than dwelling on individual performances – there’s plenty of room for that in the comments section – I’d like to finish by discussing two off-field developments that offer real hope for the future.
Firstly, the decision to drop Cook as ODI captain suggests that Whitaker, Fraser and Newell have a backbone. Despite Downton’s incredibly naïve interview the week before the World Cup squad was announced, in which the MD put enormous pressure on them to back the skipper, they stood their ground and make the right decision. Let’s hope this new pragmatism means that all future England teams will be picked on merit rather than influenced by politics.
If Cook’s test form remains in the doldrums – as seems fairly likely – they’ve demonstrated they’re capable of making big decisions. With the gruelling and testing schedule coming up, England cannot afford to carry any passengers.
The second reason for optimism is the possible departure of Giles Clarke. I doubt there’s a cricket fan in the country who thinks he’s done a good job. If (or hopefully when) Clarke moves on, English cricket might be able to unite. Some people find it hard to root for the team when they despise the board so much. The stitch up at the ICC made me feel ashamed to be English.
With Clarke out of the way, only Downton (and some might say Moores) remain as roadblocks to progress. If Downton continues to perform so poorly, he won’t survive for long, especially without Clarke in his corner. Meanwhile, it’s hard to see Moores surviving a poor world cup and a potential home Ashes defeat.
As fans all we want is to see is an entertaining, inclusive England side, with officials we respect making decisions that serve the game’s best long-term interests. Unfortunately we’ve seen little sign of that this year: instead events at the ICC, the handling of the Pietersen debacle, the continued absence of live cricket on terrestrial TV and sky-high ticket prices have enraged and divided England supporters.
In this observer’s opinion things must improve off the pitch before things can improve on it. The atmosphere at the moment is still fraught. While England have the wrong chairman, the wrong MD and an illogical and polarising man as coach, there will be still be a significant proportion of passionate, dedicated and lifelong England supporters who don’t mind seeing the team lose. If one thing must change in 2015, then it is surely this.
So will it be a happy new year for English cricket? Let’s hope so. It can hardly be any worse than the annus maximus horribilis we’ve just endured. One thing’s for sure though, it’s going to be a long old year, with the World Cup followed by test series against the Windies, New Zealand, Australia, Pakistan and South Africa.
Our players will be absolutely exhausted this time next year. Injuries will probably mount and burn out must be a risk. But at least the ECB coffers will be bulging. That’s the most important thing, right?

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