England’s struggles against the Netherlands in their first World Cup match indicate not so much their inadequacy – or Holland’s improvement – but more the huge mental exertion they expended to win the Ashes in Australia.
We all had an idea of the work that was put in to achieve that goal, but it has only been from talking to Andrew Strauss in the last few weeks, as we piece together his story of how England retained the Ashes Down Under for the first time in a quarter of a century, that you can understand the true extent of it.
England were walking and talking the Ashes for almost a year before the actual event – planning, discussing, training, practising, rehearsing, covering every possible situation and eventuality.
Intensive preparations were being conducted throughout last summer, working on individual game plans, practising a variety of what they called ‘scenarios’ – at times it sounded like a military campaign – while still continuing to play an awkward and at times quite distressing series against Pakistan.
Then the pre-tour camp in Germany pushed the players to levels of pain and endurance that they had never experienced before. In the event the actual Ashes itself was not nearly as demanding or onerous as expected, but that was partly because of the depth and scale of England’s preparations.
It resulted in what could be considered the perfect performance in Adelaide, and the effort in Melbourne wasn’t bad either. These were the products of the huge mental and physical exertion of the previous months.
But all this has taken it toil on bodies and minds. Several players have gone home injured – or been sent home to recuperate – and the whole outfit resembles the skeleton of the England rugby team that stumbled around after their heroic World Cup-winning trip to Australia in 2003.
England’s current cricket team is similarly just skin and bone, epitomised by the emaciated-looking Jimmy Anderson. They need fattening up, mentally more than physically. But they are not going to get that at a World Cup in India where they often don’t know what city they’re in, never mind what day it is.
They wound down in Australia with golf, and a generally laissez faire attitude from the management. There is no chance of that in India where the itinerary and a general lack of decent courses makes that impossible.
Looking into the players’ faces during that Netherlands match, you could see glazed eyes and worn expressions. They tried to fire themselves up but their minds were not willing, and are contaminated by the interminable schedule of this World Cup in which most of the first month is meaningless.
This tournament will be about the survival of the fittest. England were that in November, as they set out to conquer their Everest. But they have fallen off the cliff since then and it may be some time before they can attain those exceptional levels again.