reports from Rawalpindi
Michael Atherton yesterday apologised for calling a Pakistani journalist a "buffoon," at Sunday's press conference through a brief statement, which was released by the tour manager, John Barclay, yesterday at Atherton's request.
In it, the England captain, who was not present, confirmed his regret. "At yesterday's press conference, after the match against South Africa, I am very sorry if I caused offence to a local journalist and local journalists during questions," the statement read. Mind you, Barclay's glib tone, as he read out the words by the hotel pool did not exactly smack of humility on a grand scale.
The curtness and brevity made it reminiscent of the apology Mike Gatting begrudgingly delivered to Shakoor Rana here in 1987, after their infamous finger-jabbing argument during the second Test. Unlike yesterday's, though, that one was at least written out by Gatting. Like yesterday's, however, it was brief to the point of condescension: "Dear Shakoor Rana, I apologise for the bad language used during the second day of the Test match. Mike Gatting."
By taking this step, England are clearly hoping that the situation will crawl down some local storm drain never to resurface, and that they and their captain can concentrate on the cricket. In particular, this means the urgent business of resurrecting England's confidence and with it their batting.
It looks an immense task, and yet it is one Bob Woolmer, South Africa's coach, feels is far from impossible. His view is at some variance with the media, who now feel that Atherton and Illingworth have just over a week to arrest what many of them see as the terminal tailspin of English cricket; and that that process, which has been with us for more than 20 years, is due largely to the out-moded infrastructure of county cricket, with its traditions for sustaining mediocrity and unambitious personnel.
Woolmer, despite South Africa's current good form, is no stranger to humiliation. When he first took over as coach in 1994, South Africa lost six one-day internationals out of six during a triangular tournament involving Pakistan and Australia.
"It was a real eye-opener for all of us," he said over coffee in the team's hotel in Rawalpindi yesterday. "It was obvious that we still played one-day cricket in a stultified, old-fashioned way. We didn't know how to improvise and we certainly didn't have strategies to cope with reverse swing or leg-spin bowling."
"From what I've seen of England, they haven't moved on either. Players don't seem to know where they are going or what roles they are meant to be fulfilling within the context of the team. They don't seem to respond quickly enough to situations on the field and, unless sanctioned by a higher authority, few of them seem prepared to take risks."
Woolmer is perhaps fortunate to have come into a set-up pliable enough to let him have a free rein. By contrast, England's set-ups have always been too "captain-centric" to be flexible, a throwback to the Victorian era's love of accountable responsibility.
There is no doubt that since his appointment as England chairman, Illingworth's presence has diluted the captain's power by over half. Even so, you need far more than just the input of two people - irrespective of their cricketing pedigrees - if the team is to keep up with the new methods and ideas that constantly course through the modern game.
"What you have to do," Woolmer said, "is to involve all the players and get them talking and therefore thinking about cricket. What struck me, when I first went to Warwickshire, was how little the game was discussed. If things went wrong, the player concerned just seemed to want to wipe it from their mind rather than talk about it and get it in the open. Fear of failure is a big problem amongst English players, and it often holds them back."
Compared to other countries, English players seem less receptive to change. Static players lack ambition, which makes for predictable cricket, and it is painful listening to England continue to pass off their poor performances with excuses about poor practice facilities and wet balls. To say you are improving when the Netherlands lose to you by just 49 runs reeks of self-delusion.
There is no reason England cannot play far better. But they will not do it until they at least admit that things are going badly wrong. No amount of nets or practice games can circumvent that. At present they have the potential to play far better, but not the confidence to do so. If the two are to combine favourably there has to be desire, both on a team level and as an individual.
What England need to do before the quarter-finals is to change their whole way of thinking. They need to open up a major discussion and find out why they are losing. If necessary those in charge must point fingers at individuals as well as each other. At last it would get feelings out into the open and allow the fragmented on-field spirit to be built up again from scratch.
Above all, they must play for each other, not finding excuses for not playing well. And then go and beat Pakistan in Karachi on Sunday.
n Kenya were deprived of a good chance of a surprise win over Zimbabwe, who were 45 for 3 after 15.5 overs when rain washed out their World Cup Group A match in Patna, India, yesterday.The pair will play a fresh game today.
World Cup update
GROUP A: Zimbabwe 45 for 3 v Kenya (at Moin-ul-Haq stadium, Patna, India). Match abandoned (rain). New match starting today.
GROUP B: Pakistan beat Netherlands by eight wickets. Netherlands 145 for 7 (F Aponso 58; Waqar Younis 4-26); Pakistan 151 for 2 (Saeed Anwar 83no) (at Gaddafi stadium, Lahore, Pakistan).
P W L T NR Pts RR
S Africa 3 3 0 0 0 6 2.11
Pakistan 2 2 0 0 0 4 2.38
N Zealand 3 2 1 0 0 4 0.48
England 4 2 2 0 0 4 0.14
Neth 3 0 3 0 0 0 -1.90
UAE 3 0 3 0 0 0 -2.58
GROUP A: Zimbabwe v Kenya (at Moin-ul-Haq stadium, Patna, India); India v Australia (at Wankhede stadium, Bombay). TV: Sky Sports: Live from Bombay 08.55-17.00.
GROUP B: New Zealand v United Arab Emirates (at Iqbal stadium, Faisalabad, Pakistan) TV: Sky Sports: Highlights 19.00-22.00.