Following the cowardly refusal to accept responsibility for an emphatic and humbling defeat in his own backyard, one could have been forgiven for confusing Michael Vaughan with Gordon Brown.
Unlike in the Prime Minister’s case, there are no dissenting voices from the ranks calling for the England captain’s head but any association with the downtrodden Premier in his current state of popularity is telling enough.
While Geoff Miller and his fellow England selectors might seem not to have much in common with Labour’s Cabinet, their questionable decision-making and collective insouciance at failure has made such unflattering comparisons possible.
The credibility of Vaughan’s leadership, like Brown’s, is under more pressure than ever.
Politics and sport have never mixed well, so steering clear of such comparisons is usually advisable - but the England and Wales Cricket Board would do well to learn from the Government’s mistakes by adopting a more transparent and decisive approach to its leadership.
At the moment the messages from all sides are befuddled.
While the Prime Minister trots out familiar phrases about ‘getting on with the job in a tough economic climate’, England head coach Peter Moores and company are, as always, “looking for the positives” and only concerned with “controlling the controllables [sic]”.
It is a damning assessment of Moores that one of his most notable achievements since succeeding the media-unfriendly but straight-talking Duncan Fletcher has been to introduce into cricket the kind of banal verbiage commonplace in football and politics.What Moore’s flowery language does well is obscure a pretty mediocre Test record since 2006: three series wins (New Zealand twice and West Indies at home) and two defeats (in Sri Lanka and here to India) is hardly impressive.
Even if England emerge with credit from the series with South Africa, the winter tours to India and the West Indies and next year’s Ashes, Moores will have left it late to come up with some meaningful results.
If they don’t, he will be on his way and will no doubt rue a combination of conservative selections and poor judgment for his demise.
The reinstatement of Steve Harmison, as much a loose cannon in terms of his bowling as his personality, is a mixture of both: conservative in the sense that his selection can be justified due his reputation as the top ranked bowler in the world a few years ago; but poor judgment because his best days are unquestionably behind him.
Just a week ago Harmison was overlooked for Darren Pattinson, whose controversial inclusion at Headingley has been criticised, perhaps more vehemently given that more ‘English’ bowlers like Simon Jones (32 first class wickets at 16), Kabir Ali (44 wickets at 19) and Yorkshire’s Matthew Hoggard were among those shunned.
Desperation can be the only explanation for the selections of Pattinson and Harmison.
Miller was in dizzying spin mode this week, maintaining the ‘Pattinson Decision’ was still correct.For the man who was so keen to advocate consistency when he had selected the same side on six successive occasions before Headingley but simultaneously over-emphasising cheap wins over New Zealand and the West Indies, his capricious swing from an untried nobody to a tried, tested and failed alternative indicates a man lacking a clear vision.
The moment decisions needed to be made Miller and the selectors got them wrong; in restoring Harmison, whom they dropped a year ago, they have made another error.
His record at Edgbaston (five wickets at 68) is less convincing than that at Headingley (13 wickets at 32), where a ‘pitch-it-up swing bowler’ was preferred.
History and head groundsman Steve Rouse, who believes the Edgbaston pitch is tailor-made for Jones, suggests more of the same will be required in Birmingham.
Among the best Test figures to have been recorded there, bowlers of that ilk – Fred Trueman (12 for 119 in 1963); Arthur Gilligan (11 for 90 in 1924); Richard Ellison (10 for 104 in 1985) and Chetan Sharma (10 for 188 in 1986) – are among the top six.Spinners have been equally successful: Shane Warne (10 for 162 in 2005), Muttiah Muralitharan (10 for 115 in 2006) and left-armer Charlie Blythe, whose 11 for 102 came 99 years ago, are testament to a surface which markedly deteriorates and the importance of batting first.
In Harmison’s favour his 40 wickets at 23 in Division One puts him among the leading bowlers on the county circuit (like Pattinson) and, while he has proved adept at losing the plot, he is occasionally capable of winning matches which is clearly a maverick trait that England need. But picking players out of loyalty, on reputation or from “left field”, as Miller admitted in relation to Pattinson’s inclusion, usually proves a mistake.
Remember Sven Goran-Eriksson handing a coveted place among England’s World Cup squad to a teenager yet to play in the Premier League? It still baffles.The only option left to his successor, Steve McClaren, after picking a goalkeeper who had no full international experience for his side’s crucial Euro 2008 qualifier against Croatia, was to hunker down under an umbrella and agonisingly watch his managerial future washed away.
Even the once-successful and proven coaches are not immune from bouts of selection dementia.
Andy Robinson, the man responsible for sending England rugby back five years, chose Mathew Tait to make his international debut against Wales at the Millennium Stadium just months after he had left school. He was mauled by Gavin Henson.
Robinson’s predecessor, Sir Clive Woodward, foolishly ignored overwhelming evidence which suggested England’s World Cup-winning veterans didn’t have the legs to compete with a supremely mobile All Blacks’ pack during the Lions tour of 2005.As it turned out they didn’t have the heart or stomach for the fight, either.
That tour, of course, will also be remembered for another memorable appointment. As if to prove the notion that politics and sport are best kept apart, Alistair Campbell, previously prime minister Tony Blair’s spin doctor, travelled to New Zealand to front the Lions’ media relations team. It was a catastrophic error of judgment on Woodward’s part and discredited his hitherto commendable record as an astute judge and progressive leader.
Ultimately, top coaches and teams build their reputations on solid selections that are based on consistent and credible arguments.
The inclusion of Harmison for tomorrow’s third Test match may be more justified than that of Pattinson’s at Headingley, but in some ways it’s just as puzzling. If he plays, as is likely, he will almost certainly come in for Stuart Broad who, at 21 years of age and after nine days’ rest, is ‘tired’, according the selectors.
What fallacious nonsense.
Since when did it become unacceptable to drop a player who, the selectors felt, had simply not done the job they wanted?
This is a must-win game for England – possibly pivotal in the futures of Moores and Vaughan – and they have put in the frame a bowler whom few could argue has disappointed more than he has pleased during his international career. On top of all that, his increasingly tiresome and childish complaints of homesickness will surely have to be remembered when it comes to picking the squads to tour India and the West Indies.
Harmison is at best a quick fix in a side crying out for longer-term answers. No amount of spin can hide that. Let’s hope someone, anyone, is accountable when it all goes wrong.