In the last few years it has been a constantly evolving task deciding which character in Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 the England cricket team and its massed corporate hierarchy most resemble.
The colonel who no longer cares if his squadron’s bombs hit the target, so long as they produce a neat aerial photo for the PR machine. The disintegrating pilots worn thin by the demands of their commanders. Or even a new contender from the last few weeks as a strangely callow, strangely careworn, England team find themselves still menaced by the cricketing equivalent of the dead man in Yossarian’s tent: the airman who turned up one day, was immediately shot down, and three years on still lingers about the place. A potent, reproachful absence.
English cricket has always played the blame game much better than it does 50-over cricket and already the first moves are being made to dodge the fallout from another disastrous World Cup. As usual, the top end will blame the bottom. Those who govern the system will blame the system itself. And yet in the middle of all this, it is worth remembering that within this World Cup cycle English cricket has produced at least one fine, fit-for-purpose 50-over team, a desert chimera long since erased by three years of white knuckle mismanagement.
At which point the screen dissolves, Monday’s make or break game against Bangladesh in Adelaide fades away and England are back in the United Arab Emirates in February 2012. Alastair Cook’s team have just won the one-day series against Pakistan 4-0, part of a run that would see England lose just five times – a 5-0 whitewash in India – in 25 matches home and abroad. This is England’s lost team of this World Cup cycle. Not just the last time they seemed to have a balance and purpose about them, but also a team who look, in retrospect, a fine fit for this current tournament, with two new balls and wide open spaces in the late overs favouring aggressive, Test-class batting followed by all-out attack towards the end.
What does seem fairly certain is the team who sealed the series in Dubai against a fine Pakistan bowling attack would have also have seen off this England team with something to spare. Andy Flower, England’s best ever coach, was still in charge and fully focused. The top three, Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott and a pre-implosion Alastair Cook were at that moment England’s three highest averaging ODI batsmen of all time. Graeme Swann was still Graeme Swann.
There is always churn in international cricket but to lose seven players from that team while going through three coaches in three years is more than reasonable wear and tear. Not least when one-day cricket is generally an old man’s game these days.
England’s top-ranked batsman is Joe Root: of the 13 players above him only Quinton de Kock is younger, while eight are aged 30 and over. And yet Pietersen and Trott, like most recent England batsmen, reached their early thirties with careers and patience worn thin by the grind of the year-round ECB revenue machine.
Similarly, Swann was younger than two of the current top three spinners in the world when he retired in 2013. Daniel Vettori is older than him, as is Rangana Herath. And yet Swann is already consigned to England’s desert ghost team, elbows shredded, spirit frazzled by a Test career that saw him bowl 3,000 balls a year for five high-impact years (Vettori averaged half as many for New Zealand over 17).
Even those that remain from that team have been depleted by the experience. Eoin Morgan was already on the wane in 2012 but still had that air of unclouded, short-form brio. Jimmy Anderson might have been better off simply retiring from white-ball cricket rather than coming into this World Cup undercooked and outmoded. Steven Finn was an irresistible force in the UAE, the best young white-ball fast bowler in the world. Within 18 months he was unselectable after a three-month winter in the company of England’s coaching staff.
Stuart Broad is perhaps the most frustrating casualty. Broad ended that series in the Emirates with his ODI record standing at 142 wickets in 87 games at 26 runs apiece, acknowledged as one of the best white-ball bowlers in the world. In 30 matches since he has 33 wickets at 42. A knee injury has hampered his progress, with surgery worked into his schedule. At the end of which he has played 15 ODIs in two years, and this format has simply left him behind.
Who is to blame for all this? Clearly such mass implosion has little to do with the structures below the national team. County cricket presented England with a workable team: it has been allowed to fall apart. Established players have either burned out or been left to drift. Their replacements have been a mismanaged churn, with 18 debutants since the last World Cup, nine of whom never made it to 10 caps.
It is quite normal to experience some flux in international cricket – Australia and South Africa have made as many changes as England since the Champions Trophy in 2013, but both have found solid ground at the right moment. England had their chance a year earlier. The World Cup might have been made the priority, the component parts of that team nourished and preserved. Instead all was geared towards those 10 back-to-back Test Matches against Australia, a piece of scheduling that helped wring the last dregs from a fine England team, while also scotching the current World Cup and dulling the precious allure of the Ashes itself.
Who knows, England might even have been able to compete at this World Cup with the guts of Dubai 2012 nourished and preserved, and with Root, Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali upgrades on Ravi Bopara, Craig Kieswetter and Samit Patel. Without the post Ashes politics, Cook might even have been eased out in gentler, more timely fashion.
It is all wishful thinking but then such is the nature of following England’s one-day planning, with its dead ends and chances missed, the shadows of the ghost team who might have been.