A 2018 piece for Wisden

Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by writers of the 1990s was finding new ways to describe the ineptitude of the England cricket team. No-one dedicated themselves to this grim task with more masochistic fervour than The Independent’s Martin Johnson.

During the Ashes series of 1993, Johnson suggested the little urn of burned bails was no longer sufficient as a signifier of English feebleness. Why not burn down the entire Long Room at Lord’s, put the remnants in a silage container and present it to Michael Atherton’s grandchildren?

In 2018, we are not quite back there yet. But judging by the mood at Lord’s on Sunday, the tinder is drying fast. After a sustained period of success, characterised by stability, competitive nous and smart long-term planning, over the last few years England’s Test side has been wobbling with increasing severity.

During these wobbles, there has been a somnolent refrain in the stands. “Oh yes. We don’t want to go back to the dark days of the 1990s” invariably accompanied by sage nods and perhaps some overpriced chardonnay served in a heavily branded rubber bag. And then some more snoozing.

But no amount of expensively marketed anaesthetic will have masked last week’s crowd from the ugly truth unfolding before them. England are bad at Test cricket again. Really bad. So bad that they haven’t started a summer this badly since 1995.

And yet somehow, in discussions about the side, there has been a persistent politeness — a sense of forbearance and a belief that it’ll all come good soon. Why?

Joe Root’s Test captaincy is being called into question after yet another poor outing

“Oh well, you know, there’s Stokes. There’s Root. There’s Anderson, Broad, Bairstow, Cook — just give it time.”

Time has been given. And if an England side can be forgiven for losing in Australia, even in New Zealand, it cannot be forgiven for serving up the relentlessly cartoonish barely-3-days-long wiffle of this week, and deserve to retain their following.

Pakistan were fantastic, and more should be made of this. But here a reflection is offered on the state of English Test cricket: its patient supporter base is being taken for granted.

Nowhere, apart from perhaps Australia, is a nation so keen to watch Test cricket. And yet management of the ‘product’ — the now obligatory referent — seems orientated explicitly to insult the entire red-ball constituency.

Debutant Dom Bess was the fourth spinner used by England in their last four Tests

A white-ball specialist Test coach; white-ball lopsided scheduling; white-ball formats formulated on fag-packets. And, perhaps most jarringly for county championship purists, white-ball specialists selected for the Test side despite, in recent months, having played roughly the same amount of first-class cricket as Angela Lansbury.

Yes, Jos Buttler played well. Yes, the white-ball side looks rosy. And yes, the women’s game is in rude health. These are not small achievements. But if the ECB do in fact care about their existing audience, they need to start showing it. Fires can also be started by negligence.

Patrick Alexander is a writer and lives in London. Twitter: @i_padawan

Originally published at www.wisden.com on May 30, 2018.

Writing and teaching. Tweets at @i_padawan

Writing and teaching. Tweets at @i_padawan