ICC World Cup 2019: Bairstow outburst suggests an England dressing room in turmoil
The relationship between player and writer/critic is always prickly, and necessarily so for the sanctity and good health of both professions. Sycophancy does not help the media in any area of expertise, not just sport. For the performer, it is even worse, because it creates a false sense of security.Updated: Jun 30, 2019 12:49 IST
Johny Bairstow’s outburst against English scribes (especially former players/captain) on the eve of the match against India came as a surprise, for its maudlin tenor as well as its timing.
Cricketers, like performing artistes, can be highly sensitive to criticism. But for Bairstow to whine that former players-turned-pen pushers and commentators wanted England to fail was an over-the-top reaction.
Some critics can be scathing, some constructive, but this has to be taken in the stride. The relationship between player and writer/critic is always prickly, and necessarily so for the sanctity and good health of both professions. Sycophancy does not help the media in any area of expertise, not just sport. For the performer, it is even worse, because it creates a false sense of security.
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If it is any consolation for Bairstow, many of today’s critics who were players had pretty much the same complaint about their predecessors in the media. And years from now, English players might have similar grouse against Bairstow if he wears a journalist’s hat.
More than the tone and content, however, it is the timing of Bairstow’s grouse that should perk up the Indian team. It suggests an England dressing room in turmoil and players on edge at the thought of the team not making it to the semi-finals.
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This will not be lost on the Indian team. Excellence at sport, as is universally acknowledged, is as much mental strength and equanimity under pressure as it is skill and ability.
While England remain powerful on paper, Bairstow’s plaintive bleat makes their resolve suspect, and obliquely, also exposes where things have perhaps gone wrong.
The current predicament is predicated in the aura of invincibility. After the disastrous 2015 World Cup campaign, England’s recovery has been remarkable. An `all-out’ aggressive approach, especially in batting—aided by some helpful pitches—has been thrilling to watch.
But this also made them uni-dimensional, uncaring to the vicissitudes thrown up by different pitches, conditions, and the pressure of playing a major tournament.
Opponents, more open-minded and prudent to make swift adjustments or settle for periods of attrition rather than match aggro with aggro, got the better of an England side otherwise way stronger on paper.
I am not referring to Australia, who made England pay a heavy price for misreading the pitch and bowling the wrong length in the one-sided contest at Lord’s. Think Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Both were struggling, moving along in fits and starts. Against England, they came out on top because they were more diligent and exploited the opportunities that came their way.
In a sense, this England side is not unlike the one that played in the 1983 World Cup, which India’s chief coach Ravi Shastri will recall though he did not play the semi-final against them at Old Trafford.
England were second favourites, after West Indies, and had marched into the semi-final on the back of strong performances. They believed India could be blown away through aggression, unmindful of a sluggish pitch that helped India’s seamers and slow bowlers, and lost badly.
However, Shastri must also remember another World Cup semi-final in which he played, at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai. This time, India were favoured to win, in home conditions, and with a fine spin attack to exploit a slow turner.
But what India had not anticipated is how assiduously England would prepare to play India’s spinners. In the couple of days preceding the match, they got local slow bowlers for net practice and worked almost entirely on the sweep shot.
In the semi-final, India’s spinners, Shastri included, were not only thwarted, but put to the sword by Gooch and Co, who used the sweep very effectively. Slow on the uptake, the spinners did not alter the line and length, and India were sent packing.
The moral of these anecdotes is that stability of temperament, being alert at all times to developments and fluidity of tactics are crucial at this level. Overconfidence on the other hand can lull even a good side into complacency, and consequent disaster.
The pressure will undoubtedly be far greater on England, gasping to stay alive in the tournament. But for India to believe they are invincible because they are undefeated would be a huge fallacy.
First Published: Jun 30, 2019 12:49 IST