I’m delighted that England won the second test in Grenada. A draw would have been unappetising, and a loss disastrous for our young team. However, I have to say I’m gobsmacked and also slightly exasperated by the media’s reaction to England’s win.
I though sensationalism was the preserve of English football hacks. I was wrong. It’s endemic in cricket journalism too. Indeed, many esteemed cricket writers and their football counterparts seem to have swapped roles in recent times.
Almost a year ago, England failed to win a single game at the World Cup finals. The affable, reliable, but hardly dynamic Roy Hodgson was under pressure, but entrusted to lead the team into a new era with young players.
Thus far quite a few of these new players have performed well. Most observers like the look of Danny Welbeck, Harry Kane, Nathaniel Clyne and Fabian Delph. So do I. They could turn into useful players in time.
The England football team currently stand top of their qualifying group with five wins from five games and a goal-difference of plus fourteen. That’s an average of almost three goals a game. Not bad, eh.
Normally, a run of success like this would see Phil Jagielka compared to Bobby Moore, and Wayne Rooney put on a pedestal alongside Pele, Maradona, Mother Teresa and St George himself.
The fact Rooney is approaching Bobby Charlton’s all time goal scoring record would elevate the hype to fever pitch. Wayne would be declared an all time great – even though most of his goals have been scored against minnows – and the fact he flops in major finals would be ignored.
But no. This time it’s different. Rather than going over the top, praise from the football hacks has been measured and extremely cautious. Maybe our much maligned football pundits have finally engaged the grey matter between their ears.
Because England’s wins have come against lowly Slovenia, Lithuania and Estonia, media reaction has been somewhat subdued. Indeed, England’s most impressive result thus far has come against Switzerland – a team ranked twelve places below England in the world rankings.
Most football journalists realise that England haven’t been tested yet. They appreciate that the standard of football in England’s group is worse than the domestic premiership, and they’ve adopted a ‘wait and see’ mentality. Surely any responsible journalist would do the same?
When it comes to the England cricket team, however, it’s a different story. Just over a year ago, England were murdered in the Ashes and failed to win a single game. New blood was needed and the powers that be ushered in a new exciting era. The parallels with English football are obvious.
Although there have been numerous hiccups along the way – I doubt Roy Hodgson would have survived two embarrassing home defeats in addition to World Cup humiliation – cricket journalists have spun England’s story in a far more sympathetic and positive manner.
Let’s look at the last twelve months. I’ll adopt a style as surreal as the world inhabited by some (but my no means all) cricket journos …
Firstly, England lost to Sri Lanka at home in all forms of the game. We usually beat the Lankans, especially after their star No.9 Murali retired, so this was a kick in the pants.
According to many journalists however, the performance wasn’t that bad. We were only a slice of bad luck away from winning the first game, and only two balls away from safety in the second. In fact we were agonisingly close to a George Graham style 1-0 series victory (who cares about style, eh). Defeat? Pah!
In the second instalment of the summer, we conceded an embarrassing early goal against India (despite watering the pitch before kick-off) but rallied to beat them 3-1 at Wembley. What a comeback!
During this heroic turnaround, our struggling captain Wayne Cook registered a couple of assists when the ball accidentally ricocheted off his arse and fell into the path of Bryan, I mean Sam, Robson. Fortuitous? Not according to the press. Apparently it takes great mental resolve for one to position one’s arse in precisely the right place. Bravo!
Following the victory against India – who are second from bottom (of major nations) in the world rankings and notoriously bad travellers – our five-a-side team flew to the southern hemisphere to contest the World Cup. We were slaughtered. We even lost to Bangladesh, who are a lot worse at cricket than Switzerland are at football.
Somehow however, Peter McLaren managed to hold on to his job. He’s no good at the five-a-side stuff, but because we beat India in a rousing comeback at home (i.e. this time they actually won a game before they gave up) he survived the dreaded vote of confidence.
Now it’s on to the Caribbean, where England are playing the only team in the world ranked even lower than India. What’s more their star striker, Dwight Gayle, is off playing for his club side. They really should do something about this club versus country dilemma you know.
In the first test of the series, England failed to break down the opposition’s defence for several hours and only managed a goalless draw. Hash tag sad face.
Even worse, Wayne Cook looked hopelessly out of sorts. Did you know he hasn’t scored a goal for thirty five matches? It’s a big worry. According to most pundits he’s still a great player though. Even though Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott (who basically have identical records) are not.
In the second game, England finally managed to snatch victory by playing incredibly well in the last ten minutes. Joe Oxlade Chamberlain scored a hat-trick, and Wayne Cook took advantage of Jerome Boateng’s absence to register another couple of assists … the second of which was made when Jason Roberts was off the field injured, and Devendra Bishop was limping badly.
Did I stretch the analogy too far? Probably.
I find the press reaction to this stuttering year bizarre. Rather than establishing context, and analysing performances and results relative to the strength of the opposition, there has been much celebration.
Reaction has bordered on delirious gushing in some quarters (but by no means all). Anyone would have thought we’d defeated Sri Lanka easily, beaten India without alarm, reached the semi-finals of the World Cup, and were 2-0 up in the Caribbean after two wins inside four days – goals which wouldn’t have seemed unreasonable just a year ago.
Despite this reality, all we’ve heard in recent days is that the team is making excellent progress – even though it’s making harder work of beating limited opponents than the incoming chairman of the ECB, and many pundits themselves, had predicted.
Even more astonishing is the claim that Alastair Cook is back to his best. I’m not sure how a couple of half-centuries against a poor team missing key bowlers proves anything. What was it about the way Cook caressed the ball into the back of an empty net from two yards out that merits such premature optimism? One suspects Australia, South Africa and Pakistan might defend a little better.
Basically I’m confused. Why have the nation’s esteemed cricket journalists – the fine writers who inspired me to become a writer myself – displayed what I consider to be a peculiar lack of perspective and judgement?
Maybe Cook and Moores really are that likeable? Maybe their intoxicating charm mesmerises helpless correspondents, who then root for them so badly that all objectivity is purged from their eloquent prose? Or perhaps it’s something more sinister: an irrational, or even somewhat sadistic, longing to build people up before knocking them down again.
I certainly hope not. I’ve long despaired at the media’s idolisation of England’s captain. Why burden a good test batsmen with great expectations? Hasn’t his form suffered enough? If he gets a pair at Barbados I bet the knives will be out again.
British sports writers are amongst the best in the world – and our cricket journalists are the finest amongst them. Yet I sense the media has never been so out of synch with ordinary cricket supporters. Their hyperbole insults our intelligence. Or am I just hypercritical? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all.