One of the best minor characters in Catch‑22, Joseph Heller’s minor-character masterpiece, is Colonel Cargill, an airforce commander who in peacetime was a sharp, aggressive, well-spoken, utterly incompetent marketing executive, and who in wartime has transferred these skills to the theatre of operations to become a commanding, meticulous, woefully inept serving officer. “He was a self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody,” Heller writes of Cargill, who has managed to conquer all sorts of natural advantages – wealth, connections, a fine mind – in order to earn his gold-plated reputation for producing failure, confusion and incompetence to order.
There was once a time when the leap from Colonel Cargill’s talent for mob‑handed failure to England’s 50-over cricket team would have been less an actual leap more a kind of gently sighing downwards lurch. These days, though, not so much. In fact at the halfway stage in a brilliantly entertaining ICC Champions Trophy tournament England – who for so many years took to the field on these occasions beneath a fug of densely knitted confusion, trousers hoicked up, hat on upside down, blueprints and plans and cue cards tumbling from their mismatched turn-ups – have looked instead bafflingly staid and steady, even during the defeat by Sri Lanka that means their Champions Trophy campaign may yet fail to make it through the weekend.
No doubt this is a good thing. Over two profitable years, at least at home, England have shed almost completely that Colonel Cargill-style sense of portable man-made confusion and are instead enjoying some success by sending out what is basically a grudgingly tweaked version of the Test team designed to keep calm and carry about its business in the manner of a grand Victorian family in humiliatingly reduced circumstances, smiling glassily, eating their corned beef off antique bone china washed down with a gravy boat full of dishwater, and generally helping mother carry on as though everything’s still just perfectly fine and normal.
Of course there are plans and theories still kicking about. There is the ongoing need to “build a platform” which involves Alastair Cook and Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott spending the opening overs looking as though they’re just out for a bit of a walk, pottering about by the bins, fixing something in the garden. But this is no more than a small-scale fixation compared to the peak years of The Madness, that glorious overkill of schemes and plans and brown paper and string big ideas that was the lot of England’s 50-over cricket for much of the last two decades. Often a team that fails consistently will be accused of having no tactics, or at least the wrong tactics. With England it was more a case of having too many tactics, plans A-Z all unleashed indiscriminately like a grand, Soviet bureaucracy of the old school with a million half-cocked and imitative ideas all in train at once – pinch-hitters, all-rounders, papier-mache denim jeans, a wicketkeeper batsman carved entirely from potatoes.
Plus of course as well as All The Tactics, England were for a while intent on using All The Players. Even as Test selection dwindled towards the current policy of mawkish fidelity, so the revolving door of the 1990s remained in place in 50-over cricket. In one three-year period between Steve Harmison and Ravi Bopara making their ODI debuts England blooded 29 other players. Although even within this there were still some immutable rules. For example wicketkeepers, not opening batsmen must open the batting. And you can never ever get enough all-rounders.
And really it is around the hair-clogged sinkhole of the late middle order (34 different England No8s in the past 10 years; 32 different No7s) – that The Madness continues to linger most stubbornly. Like the melting, cowering Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it is around this black hole that England’s wide-eyed late order occasionals still huddle, from the continued insistence that Chris Woakes is actually a one-day player, back through the receding memory of the middle order Handyman Years, epitomised by Ronnie Irani – a kind of Status Quo cricketer: furiously committed, almost entirely immobile, gamely burping out his three-chord repertoire – to that illusory high point under Adam Hollioake, when a team of window-cleaners, lion tamers, violinists and charismatic Victorian adventurers returned from their grand winter tour with a selection of elephant feet, Mayan gold, slave girls, aristocratic venereal diseases and – oh yes – buried at the bottom of the suitcase, the Sharjah Cup.
Where did it come from, The Madness? In part it must be to do with systems, or rather a systems overload. England’s recent period of success in the longer form has been based around a hugely interventionist management structure, from hands-on corporate overlords to dictatorial track-suited coach. And this works just fine in Test cricket, where it is enough simply to follow the wider plan: go slow, take stock and if in doubt consult the baseball-capped support gallery. It works in Twenty20 too where the only plan (fast, not slow) is the only plan.
But 50-over cricket demands something else, a sense of fluidity, a roving in-game intelligence, at times even an absence of set plans. Adjustments must be made, targets set, hunches abandoned. And perhaps it is here that English cricketers struggle, these eagerly branded academy products with their ever-ready support network, their game-plans, their rote-learnt innovations. Oddly enough, for all the glorious stability of recent Test teams, England were, all thing being equal, slightly better at 50-over cricket in pre-modern times, those paunchy, maverick big personality talents of the 1980s perhaps better suited to the occasional need to adapt, retrench, counterattack and generally make it up as you go along.
Quite what happens next remains to be seen. For now The Madness, that sense of overloaded Cargill-cricket self-immolation has all but disappeared under Cook, so steely, so intelligent, so utterly sensible. Perhaps though there is a case still for retaining in among all the corporate stability just a tiny homeopathic infusion of the old twitchiness. Not so much plans A-Z all at the same time, but at least plans C, D and E, a little beneficial Madness still lurking in the back pocket beyond the odd slightly mannered reverse sweep. If only because win or lose – and it has always been, let’s be honest, mainly lose – it was always so grippingly, hopelessly entertaining.