Amidst the misery, bitterness and tiring calls for the return of Saint KP that have typified the response to another dismal England World Cup showing, my mind wandered to the last time English Cricket genuinely made me smile or laugh. Without doubt, it was the grainy photos that emerged from the Pandora’s box bar in Nottingham last July.
Gary Ballance, having scored a decent but not spectacular 71 on debut to secure a decent but not spectacular draw against India, got absolutely leathered, took his top off, leapt onto a table and reportedly shouted, ‘I’m not a test cricketer tonight, I’m just a drunken bastard.’ It sticks in the memory so much because it was the last time I can remember someone looking genuinely happy to be an England cricketer.
Fast forward just eight months, and with three sublime Test hundreds under his belt, Ballance had already been reduced to rubble, playing against New Zealand the kind of excruciating innings which every cricketer, at any level, absolutely dreads. The bat feels heavier, the feet move like lead. The fielders seem closer, yet the boundaries seem to barely even flicker on the horizon. The gaps seem smaller, the bowler a foot taller.
The demise was predictable, leaning back, attempting to whack the cover of the ball. Looping into short extra cover’s hands, a humiliating end. 10 from 26 torturous balls.
Of course, any player, in any team, at any level, can, and does, go through troughs like this. It seems symptomatic of English cricket, though. Players quickly seem to become scared of their own shadows once they make it to the top level.
Playing cricket for England doesn’t seem like fun anymore. It seems debilitating, exhausting and arduous. Little wonder that the cricket the team ends up playing is so conservative and dispiriting.
An almost obscene amount of column inches have been devoted to explaining the reasons behind the World Cup collapse, and many of them have been correct. Over reliance on data, lack of exposure to top level T20 cricket, a coach not cut out for this level. All are fair comments. It reveals, though, the ludicrous amounts of mental strain English cricketers are put under. With county cricket receiving little mainstream coverage, a significant number of cricket journos and pundits are forced to constantly critique the national side. Every spell, every innings is micro analysed, the smallest errors and deficiencies picked apart.
This is true for any international nation, of course, and given the bumper wages on offer from central contracts, English fans are absolutely entitled to expect high levels of skill and absolute professionalism. The long term effects of this exposure are becoming increasingly and worryingly apparent, however.
Being dragged away from home for months on months on end, holed up in hotel rooms can be mentally draining in itself, and when added to the scrutiny of performance there is nowadays, it becomes a toxic mix.
Though suffering from different conditions, the premature loss of Marcus Trescothick and Jonathan Trott in recent years can surely be attributed in part to this strain. Elite level sport always will be and always should be mentally challenging, and this is exactly why the England cricketing team needs a new culture that makes this challenge fun and exciting.
With all of this in mind, as much as a good performance, I yearned for a sign of defiance from the England team against Afghanistan last week. I would have loved nothing more than to see Gary Ballance, in Lord Gower style, sneak out the ground, commandeer an aeroplane and fly over the ground waving two fingers out the cockpit. Or, in Bob Willis fashion, come out the balcony and mouth off about a clueless media.
This has been a truly disastrous World Cup, and the players cannot hide behind what has been a string of embarrassing showings. Where Australia and New Zealand have relished the big battles, England have meekly retreated into their shells.
It is infuriating to watch because, particularly in the batting department, this is an exciting line up. To get them playing at their best, we need to take some of the pressure off.
Losing games can never be fun, but nor can a team be successful when it is petrified of exploring their skills and potential.
If English cricket is to get good again, it probably needs to get fun again. Someone get Gary a beer.