Cricket: Captain’s poor call a blow to England

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CAPTAINS need to be lucky. It is an old truism of cricket and one that Alastair Cook must be feeling mighty aggrieved about.

He won the toss in this must-win series-deciding Test match in Auckland and blurted out ‘we’ll bowl’ so quickly it was like an over-eager school swot trying to impress their teacher.

It was clearly England’s plan and one that he was delighted with. Luck would have been if he had called incorrectly.

Instead he watched New Zealand bat for the best part of two days, amassing over 400. The boundaries are very short as Eden Park is a rugby ground and therefore not the right shape or size for cricket, but still a score in excess of 400 means there should only be two possible results from this match, a draw or New Zealand win. Ouch. And all on winning the toss and making the wrong decision.

History can be a harsh judge and unless England gamble and attack and get a lead as quickly as possible or declare behind and try and force a match by bowling New Zealand out again, it will judge Cook’s decision as a shocker.

Nasser Hussain is still frequently reminded of his error in winning the toss at Brisbane in 2002 on a beautiful sunny day and putting Australia in to bat. They scored so many England were demoralised and the series lost by lunch time.

The England group-think to bowl ignored all evidence that did not come from the statistician. The sky was a perfect blue and the forecast set fair for the entire five days. The pitch was a drop-in and they have normally been flat. Everything screamed bat first, score 500 in 130 overs and hope scoreboard pressure with catchers circling the bat cause panic and mental freeze in the opposition.

Even that might not have been enough, as the pitch has been just as docile as the tame strip in the last match. Drop-in pitches are a reasonable idea but they must be more lively if they are to be of any benefit.

On the first morning the ball was making its way through to the keeper as if it was a wheezing asthmatic, when ideally it should have been hitting Matt Prior’s gloves hard, thudding in around waist high, offering hope to both batsman and bowler. Such pitches short-change both the viewing public and the players. The only beneficiaries are batsmen with the patience and aptitude to amass big scores. Peter Fulton did just that. A journeyman batsman who made his debut seven years ago, he seized the opportunity for his first Test century but the fact that someone who had struggled for seven years could play so easily suggests the pitch was too lifeless.

So maybe the match becomes an opportunity for players to improve their personal records or to secure their place in the side.

With so many young players in the side England could learn a bit more for the coming two Ashes series. Is Jonny Bairstow a solid number six for the Australians or is Joe Root better suited?

When the most important issues from a series are the development of young players and the injuries to senior ones like Graeme Swann and Kevin Pietersen then the tour must be considered a failure. England arrived in New Zealand expecting to win and to do so comfortably. They have failed to do so from a mixture of complacency, muddled thinking and conditions.

A drawn series is no disaster, especially after the historic victory in India before Christmas, and if Andy Flower is as rigorous about reviewing and assessing the whole England set-up as the ECB states, then he will be rethinking the driving forces behind the group-think of the management. There seems to be little devil’s advocate input. Maybe a bit more, allied to the number crunching would make England stronger.