Inside Parliament:Cricket win renders questions academic

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Indy Politics
England's unexpected 106-run victory in the Adelaide Test rather took the steam out of calls on the Commons order paper yesterday for the establishment of an Australian-style cricket academy. Oral questions to ministers have to be tabled two weeks in advance. When Nick Hawkins, the Tory MP for Blackpool South, put down his academy question he could confidently have assumed it would be reinforced on the day by news of another drubbing at the hands of Shane Warne and Co. But by the time the Sports minister, Iain Sproat, reached the despatch box to reply, the background had somewhat changed and so perforce had Mr Hawkins's supplementary.

"Given that we are all celebrating this morning our team's wonderful fightback and victory," he began to cheers which robbed the impact of what followed, "if we had had a cricketing academy like the Australians, we might have won the first three Tests aswell - and not simply be celebrating a victory after the opportunity of winning the series has gone."

Mr Sproat praised an "absolutely magnificent" performance. "I must say that the way in which the England team has conducted itself in response to appalling injuries and the kind of vicious criticism to which it has been subjected has been absolutely remarkable."

Mr Sproat returned last week from a fact-finding visit to Australia during which he visited the Australian Cricket Academy and saw the start of the Adelaide Test. But though he said he would be sharing the results of his visit with sporting bodies, he offered no view on a national cricket school.

"The cricketing world is very sharply divided between whether we should have a central cricket academy or whether these matters would be better handled by the individual countries," he said.

Underlining the rivalries, Derek Enright, Labour MP for Hemsworth, said the Yorkshire Cricket Academy had produced Darren Gough - "the great find of this tour" - while Harold Elletson, Tory MP for Blackpool North, said that if there was to be a national academy it should be in Lancashire which provided "the real backbone of English cricket".

Dennis Skinner, MP for Bolsover, made mention of the Derbyshire players Devon Malcolm and Philip DeFreitas, heroes of Adelaide, in his plea for the survival of village sports facilities provided by the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation. Mr Sproat said he had sat between DeFreitas and Malcolm at the Test match in Adelaide. "They said to me the most important single I could do was to get cricket played in schools again, and I agree."

Responding sympathetically to calls for more competitive sport in schools, Mr Sproat said that of all the schools attended by the England players at Adelaide, half no longer played cricket at all.

John Marshall, Tory MP for Hendon North, combined a plea for more competitive sport in primary schools with congratulations to Mike Atherton's team and even a hint at his party's contradictions over Europe. He wished England's rugby union players "every luck on Saturday so that they can show they're good Europeans by trouncing the French".

Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for National Heritage, was left with only a supporting role in his department's Question Time, rejecting the idea of a cap on the National Lottery jackpot and promising to publish soon his White Paper proposals on the regulation of the press.

Clive Soley, Labour MP for Hammersmith, recalled the graphic, if not exactly effective, warning to the press from an earlier minister, David Mellor, and asked if Mr Dorrell was saying "that we really have reached the stage of drinking up time in the lastchance saloon?"

"No sir," Mr Dorrell replied. "I'm thinking about it."

Tory complaints against one Sunday newspaper were only exceeded by criticism of Michael Meacher, Labour's transport spokesman, as he pursued claims in the Observer of lax security on trains travelling through the Channel tunnel.

Brian Mawhinney, Secretary of State for Transport, said security measures were "closely tailored to the threat, as assessed by the Government's security advisers". But, responding to an emergency question by Mr Meacher, he conceded that letting a passenger get off a train prior to arrival at his destination and leaving behind a bag was "a potentially serious matter". Reports have been commissioned and further action may follow.

Mr Meacher said the balance between security and fast through-put for passengers appeared to have been struck too low. But Peter Viggers, a former Northern Ireland minister, said security issues should be approached "with discretion and balance - two qualities which are in short supply at the Observer newspaper, and of which Mr Meacher is devoid".