Saturday, March 03, 2007

England's Dreaming

(Second in a series of articles about previous World Cups. This one takes us back to 1979)

England have appeared in three World Cup finals – 1979, 1987 & 1992. On the face of it, the stats suggest that they could have won two of these - 1987, where they were by the far the better side on paper, but played appallingly, and in 1992 against Pakistan, where they peaked too soon and were playing against a team seemingly inspired by higher forces.

The West Indies final of 1979, however, is often written off as a stuffing by a rampant team, and certainly the bald statistics of the result – a 90 plus run margin, would bear out this judgment. But a revisionist view of history suggests that had it not been for an appalling selection error before the game, and some perverse tactics during it, England could very easily have pulled off an unlikely victory against the reigning champions.

Four years on from 1975, and there had still only been 60 ODI games played by the time the second World Cup started, and after eight years. In contrast, there have been more than 60 ODIs played since the start of this year!

England were in a group with Canada, Australia & Pakistan. Canada were polished off in around the same length of time it takes to sing the 'Lumberjack Song', Australia were beaten quite easily, so the final game against Pakistan at Headingley was, therefore, only really crucial in terms of deciding semi final match ups. (West Indies and New Zealand qualifying from the other group)

However, it was events at Headingley that became critical in England's decision making from that point - and could be said to have a bearing on the ultimate destination of the World Cup.

In cloudy conditions, and on a very slow pitch, England only managed 165-9. In response, Mike Hendrick tore out the Pakistan top order and England looked set to win easily. Asif Iqbal hung around though, and looked as though he was going to see Pakistan home, at which point Brearley took off Phil Edmonds (who was getting no help from the pitch) and turned to Geoff Boycott's very occasional medium paced seamers. Boycott, turned his cap round, trundled in and took two wickets ending with figures of 5-1-14-2. England won by 14 runs.

Prompted by Boycott’s success, England then left out Edmonds for the side to play New Zealand in the semi final and went in with just four front line bowlers, relying on Boycott, Graham Gooch and Wayne Larkins to bowl the extra 12 overs. Again the gamble paid off as Boycott bowled nine over for 24 and took the wicket of Geoff Howarth. England squeaked through again, this time by nine runs.

On the morning of the final Bob Willis declared himself unfit.

(Quick digression here – we at TRSM have said some pretty scabrous things about Willis’s performance in the Sky box, but we take our hat off to probably the bravest person ever to play for England. Wilis's knees were so shot - even by 1979, that he often had to go out and run for an hour or so, simply to get loose enough to be able to bowl. At times just running in to bowl was an extraordinary achievement - so to lead the England attack and pick up 300 plus wickets is quite simply remarkable.)

With Willis absent the England side matched that for the semi final - Edmonds returned and it was four front line bowlers again.

Boycott’s success with the ball had blinded the selectors. The ploy of ‘fiddling’ an allocation of overs might work on helpful pitches against Pakistan tail enders or the cautious New Zealanders, but as any Catholic priest will tell you, ‘fiddling’ can get you into big trouble, and there’s a big difference between bowling to Asif Masood on a green top and a rampant IVA Richards. Surely the selectors should have taken into account that Lords would be a near perfect batting track – and that there weren’t really any gaps in the West Indies line up where the overs could be slipped in.

As it was, 4 wickets were down for less than 100 - one more wicket then and England would have been well on top. But Brearley had to take the pressure off where a fifth bowler would have kept it on. Richards (138*) and Collis King (86 off 66 balls) went bananas for twenty overs and the combined analysis of Boycott, Gooch and Larkins was 12-0-86-0. England were left chasing 290 rather than a potential 260.

All the main bowlers went for 4 or less an over. Someone like John Lever would surely have done a similar job - or even Geoff Miller, who’d appeared in the earlier games, and who would have also brought his memorable 'porn-star moustache' to the party – a huge bonus! If strengthening the batting was the issue, well Miller was no slouch with the willow wand, and the England line up already contained Ian Botham - plus Old and Edmonds who knew one end of the bat from the other - effectively batting down to Bob Taylor at number nine.

Let’s leave aside the fact that Brearley/ Boycott as an opening pair was hardly likely to have the West Indies bowlers quaking in their boots. Without getting all Darwinian on you, with Joyce/Vaughan looking the likely first choice pairing for the upcoming World Cup (Coincidently another Middlesex/Yorkshire pairing!) you start to wonder just how far English tactical thinking has evolved over the past twenty five years - if anything it seems to be regressing.

By tea - England were 79-0 off 25 overs. A bit slow - but probably par for the course against Holding, Garner, Croft and Roberts. The required rate a manageable 6 an over. At that stage the thinking surely had to be to get some stroke players out there as soon as possible after tea. Bear in mind that the West Indies had their own ‘5th bowler’ issues, and Richard and King were going to have to bowl 12 overs themselves. Far better they have to go up against Gooch, Randall, Gower, Botham and Larkins than the openers, and far better to give them enough time to settle in – surely?

Cue the second brain-fart of the day.

In the immediate after tea period Richards and King restricted England to 50 runs off 13 overs as the watchful opening pair made no effort whatsoever to open up and go over the top. I suppose you wouldn’t expect the stubborn Boycott to fall on his sword (‘Get meself out? Booger off skipper – I’ve only been in thirty overs!’) But you’d imagine that Brearley the master-tactician, lauded in most circles because he beat a Packer-whacked Australian team 5-1 in 1978/79 and then rode Botham to victory in the 1981 hurdles, would have had an idea of what was required – wouldn’t you?

I find it extraordinary that more hasn't been made of this. Brearley and Boycott took no risks whatsoever. It reached farcical proportions when Clive Lloyd deliberately dropped Boycott. Brearley was finally out at 129 in the 38th over – the rate was up to 7.3, which against Garner, Holding and Co was a next to impossible target.

Even more frustratingly, Graham Gooch then showed what might have been by walloping 32 off 28 balls. He and the ebullient Randall added 48 quickly, but from 183-2 with 12 overs left Joel Garner came back on, the whole edifice collapsed like Jeffrey Archer's legal defence, and it was Finals 2 West Indies 2.


Tony.T said...

Ahhh, THAT Gatting reverse sweep. The memories.

Nick said...

Interestingly, if you read 'The Art of Captaincy' you'll find that Brearley had wanted to hit out after tea. Sadly, however, he allowed himself to be talked out of this by his team, who felt that all was going well...