Martin Johnson: The meerkat solution to watching England

A whitewash in the Test series, and a whitewash in the ODIs. Just what we all predicted for the winter showdown with Pakistan, and only a nitpicker or a pedant would be churlish enough to point out that the hacks in the press box got it the wrong way round. Give us a break. A Dostoevsky novel is easier to read than this lot, but then again, t’was ever thus with the England cricket team.

Or if not quite ever thus, at least from as far back as 1986. When England went to Australia their early form (in the days when they played a full month of proper warm-up matches) was so desperate that they appeared to have as much chance of coming home with the Ashes as a Mablethorpe beach donkey of winning the Derby.

We all wrote them off, with the sole exception of the shrewd correspondent of The Independent, who prudently pointed out to the doom and gloom merchants that there were only three real areas of complete incompetence. However, as these were batting, bowling and fielding, even he was forced to acknowledge the ghastly probability of Australian journalists crowing – and if crowing was an Olympic sport, believe me they’d win the gold every time – for the entire four-month tour.

So what happened? England not only spanked Australia in the Test series, but also won both of their triangular one-day international tournaments. None of the English journalists were in danger of getting sunburned on that trip, largely because the amount of egg on their faces made it impossible for the UVC rays to get through.

They do it to us on a regular basis. The one cardinal sin for a cricket reporter in Australia is to project ahead in the middle of a match, given that his account of the day’s play is 24 hours out of date by the time the reader gets hold of it. And for two and a half tours down under, I managed to avoid this schoolboy error.

However, on the 1994-95 trip, England had been so unutterably awful, that after four days of the fourth Test in Adelaide they were on the brink of going 3-0 down with one to play. Rubbish, pitiful, disgrace, lock ‘em all up in the Tower of London, were the kind of words I felt obliged to despatch to my reader, which he was then able to digest at precisely the same moment as his bedside radio was relaying the news of England’s glorious victory.

I was a bit unlucky, in that it would never have happened had Phillip DeFreitas not been struck in that part of the anatomy which, for some peculiar reason, never fails to have fielders rolling around in mirth. When DeFreitas finally recovered, he clearly decided that the urge to enjoy the joys of fatherhood in later life was more powerful than the one to impress the coach by getting bravely into line against fast bowling, and from a position not too far distant from the square leg umpire he proceed to smear Craig McDermott all over the Adelaide Oval.

The result was Australia being left with a one-day international type of victory target rather than a stroll in the park, which, combined with the arrogance gleaned from two and half previous series of seeing the Poms feebly capitulate, proceeded to slog everything up in the air. I would normally have felt uplifted watching England pull off an unexpected triumph, but the knowledge that people back at home were reading something like “Hanging’s Too Good For Them” by Martin Johnson rather took the shine off it for me.

Lord knows I had enough previous experience to realise that at the precise moment you decide to let them have both barrels, England will perform like world-beaters. And the minute you shower them with plaudits, you get Derbyshire’s 2nd XI.

Remember the summer of 1989? It began with Ted Dexter being appointed chairman of selectors, and David Gower re-appointed as captain. “England’s Dream Ticket!” was the gist of the pre-series newspaper optimism, which imploded with the captain walking out of a press conference to go the theatre, and the chairman intimating that Terry Alderman’s deadly late swing was down to the fact that somewhere in the solar system, Venus had wandered off course. The humiliation finally peaked with satirical magazine Private Eye running one of their spoof libel apologies.

“In common with other newspapers, we recently published a number of articles under such headlines as ‘Lord Ted’s Test Tonic’, which may have given the impression that Mr Dexter’s appointment was in some way likely to lead to an improvement in the performance of England’s cricketers.

“The passage ‘Make no mistake – Dave and Ted will stuff the Aussies this summer. Border’s boys can XXXX off back Down Under’ may in particular have given rise to the unintentional inference that Mr Dexter and Mr Gower would somehow play a part in reviving England’s fortunes.

“We now accept that Mr Dexter is nothing more than a loud-mouthed PR man who has done for English cricket what Michael Foot did for the Labour party, and we apologise to all English cricket-lovers for any distress that may have been caused by our earlier articles, which we now unreservedly withdraw.’

Look again at this winter. The minute you are finally obliged to reluctantly inform your readership that Kevin Pietersen can’t play spin to save his life, he spanks the Pakistani twirlers all over the UAE. Never mind, we then wrote after the Test series, at least we have the world’s most devastating one-day batsman for the ODIs, blissfully unaware that Eoin Morgan had apparently prepared for the series by employing Devon Malcolm as his personal batting coach, and honing his posture by watching old footage of Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

And on it goes. Alastair Cook as a one-day opener? Far too slow. Shouldn’t be anyway near the ODI team, never mind captain. Now he turns out to be a run a ball D’Artagnan, with everyone’s demanding they find a place for him in the Twenty20 side.

Indeed, there’s a surefire way of making money out of cricket matches without knowing who’s been nobbled by a Bombay bookmaker. Just pick up the paper. England to win, say the pundits? Get your cash on the other lot. England to lose? Put your mortgage on our brave lads. As the meerkat would say: “Simples”.

*Martin Johnson, a former cricket correspondent of The Independent, now writes for The Sunday Times


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