BOOK OF THE WEEK: Antiquated England written into oblivion

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Hell For Leather

by Robert Winder (Victor Gollancz, pounds 17.99)

Robert Winder's principal conclusion, in this account of the 1996 World Cup, is that the fulcrum of world cricket has now moved to Asia (along with everything else in the 21st century?) and that England's relevance to the Great Game is now no more than that of a museum or art gallery.

As could be expected from a former literary editor of this newspaper, this is written with verve and some passion. England, i.e. the selectors, management, coaches and players of the national team, take some fearful stick, as might be expected, but Winder also turns his guns upon the English media, Australia and to some extent Pakistan. The heroes are India and the Indians and, rightly, the undersung eventual winners, Sri Lanka.

Winder, unlike some of the critics who flitted in and out and then wrote scathing pieces about whinging England, at least saw through the entire 10-city tour, tried and succeeded in taking a detached and objective view of the players, and media's, performances, on and off the field, in and out of the press box. On the relationship between England and her media circus he concludes: "No other country puts as much money and effort into hassling its players as we do."

As for Australia: "(They) seemed to have inherited England's mantle as the emblem of unpopular swagger. Poor England - when it comes to cricket the rest of the world no longer takes us seriously enough to be resentful."

So what is to be done? Ray Illingworth, who catches most of the blame for England's performance (with Mike Atherton second placed), has now gone and it will be interesting to see if a younger management can improve matters. Certainly the excuse that the manager is "out of touch" with the current generation has gone.

Winder is right to call for the whole of the preparation, training and coaching techniques in the 18 first-class counties to be examined. Those counties that have already introduced overseas coaches have that in mind. Such an inquiry should be a priority of the new England and Wales Board from 1 January.

Too much English cricket? England had no difficulty in finding Test match players when the counties played 28 three-day Championship matches a summer. But then there was no one-day cricket and, at the most, five Tests a season. The tour schedule was much more leisurely. Why, the top players often stayed at home during the winter. What Atherton's team needed, after South Africa, it is clear, was a rest from the adrenalin- draining tempo of limited overs.

There are some trenchant lines about Geoffrey Boycott's credentials as a commentator and references to the dark menace of cricket betting, and the influence of the bookmakers, especially upon Pakistani cricket. One finished with much sympathy for England's captain; if he does decide to become Cricket Correspondent of the Sunday Times next September, and get some of his own back, who could blame him?

Derek Hodgson