Martin Johnson: Big Bob untouchable as man of the series

It was, by anyone’s standards, a bit of a disaster, and the post mortems, inquests and soul searching would have gone on for quite some time after England’s Test series hammering by Pakistan. How awful was that? Who’s to blame? How can we put it right? Sure, there were one or two outstanding performers out there, but what an earth was going on with the Sky commentary team’s middle order?

Perhaps, as England are fond of doing, they should first “take away the positives”, and you’d have to say that back in the London studio, Bob Willis was in irresistible form. All Australian umpires of Bob’s era were dismissed as crooks, and he only just stopped short of suggesting that if Pakistan were to select Saeed Ajmal for this year’s men’s Olympic javelin, he’d be a shoo-in for gold.

Bob was man of the series for me, in the face of strong competition from several other forthright contributors on the commentary team, but it’s hard to recall another series in which so many non-regulars were invited in front of a microphone to blather on un-informatively, and with deliveries that would have made the Speaking Clock sound expressive.

Why is exactly that all our cricket broadcasters find it necessary to fill their commentary boxes with ex-players from the country England happen to be playing against? Is it a compulsory part of the contract? Or following the modern trend of tugging the forelock to political correctness?

There’s an argument for keeping a balance, although even this went out of the window when two of them were occasionally paired together during the series. And in any event, what’s the point if they’re no good at it?  Lord knows what set of criteria is applied to the selection process, but it appears to be: Rule 1. Ex-player. Rule 2. Fairly well known person. Rule 3. Er,that’s it.

Basil Fawlty once proffered the opinion that Sybil would score pretty heavily on Mastermind so long as her chosen specialist subject was “the bleedin’ obvious”, but if the other three chairs were occupied by Waqar Younis, Ramiz Raja, and Aamir Sohail she’d come a distant fourth. Cue John Humphreys. “Waqar Younis. Fifty eight points…….and no passes!”

Waqar never failed to say, every time England lost a batsman, “that’s a big wicket.” Pietersen. “That’s a big wicket!” Bell. “That’s a big wicket”. Morgan. “That’s a big wicket!”  You could argue, long before the end, that they were actually all very small wickets, and that Waqar would have been far more accurate extending this accolade to the likes of Jimmy Anderson.

You couldn’t argue with Waqar’s other constant assertion, namely that England couldn’t read Ajmal’s doosra, although he himself appeared to have problems picking which part of Ajmal’s anatomy was involved when missing a ball from Stuart Broad. “Yes, definitely the back leg,” he said, and then said it again even after the slow-motion replay showed the ball thudding into the poor chap’s unmentionables.

Ramiz, by contrast, was not struggling with his eyesight, just his insight. Only a former opening batsman like himself, for example, could have offered the viewer this kind of piercing enlightenment. “As an opener,” said Ramiz “you’ve got to know where your off stump is.”

Waqar, as a non-opener, was clearly having trouble knowing where a batsman’s middle stump was, but it was he who came up with the definitive verdict on the impact of the DRS system. “I think with the umpires,” he said “it is how they feel. If they feel it is hitting the stumps, they give it out.”

So that’s it explained then. No need for England’s analyst to spend any more time in front of his laptop. Although Waqar’s theory about the umpires perhaps needs minor clarification. Namely, that if England had got their bats in the way of a ball the umpires felt was hitting the stumps, rather than their pads, they might have done a little better.

English batsmen have been playing spinners with their pads for as long as cricket has existed. No one ever got given lbw if they got a good forward stride in against a spinner, as Raymond Illingworth will tell you if you’ve got time enough to listen. “I’d ‘ave doobled me wickets if i’d been seamer, lad” was his constant mantra, and he was right.

England felt that the reason the umpires kept feeling that the balls their batsmen were missing were hitting the stumps, was that they had spent too long with their feet up before this series. Undercooked and underprepared, apparently, although why this should have applied to the batsmen, but not the bowlers, is one of those answers-on-a-postcard-please conundrums.

It was grim to watch, at times looking as though England’s middle order had decided to honour the recently departed Jimmy Savile by giving the impression they’d been chosen for the tour by writing in to ‘Jim’ll Fix It’. No one looked more hopeless than Bell, and – as is always the way when you’re out of nick – he died two horrible deaths, stumped off a rebound and played on through his legs.

It’s a moot point as to whether Bell spent as long at the crease in three Test matches as it took to hand out the end of series gongs at the closing ceremony. Michael Atherton, the MC, is a patriotic chap, and would have been feeling the pain of England’s whitewash, and yet the task of inviting Eoin Morgan to come up and collect the ‘Sweet and Salty Performance Award for the Most Number of Sixes’ (two, as it happens) left him struggling to fight off a fit of the giggles.

Morgan, who averaged 13.66 in the series, looked suitably sheepish at being asked to collect a very large cardboard cheque for a very small amount of money but, if nothing else, it was a suitably comical way for England to bow out.

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