Broken reeds full of excuses

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The Independent Online
WATCHING the England cricket team being mashed by the Pakistanis was a salutary experience, if indeed you could watch it, and didn't find yourself seduced by the irresistible charms of whatever happened to be on on ITV at the time.

This year's scapegoats have been all the various people who have batted in the vital No 6 position, as opposed to last year, when it was all the people who batted in the vital No 3 position. It is perhaps unfortunate that one person featured in both these lists - the luckless Graeme Hick.

Is it only a year since we were hailing him as the greatest batting talent since Bradman? So eminent a performer was he deemed to be that he even appeared on the front cover of Radio Times. Now, after 11 Tests and a Ken Rutherfordesque average of 18, Hick is a sorry figure. Bags of talent, of course, but after a year of constant disappointment, both his confidence and his technique are shot to pieces. He has, in short, become a lame duck. A spent force. A broken reed.

In the Captain Scott Invitation XI, we know a lot about broken reeds. Players who once aspired to the Olympian heights of mediocrity now find, a year or two later, that they are completely useless. Bowlers who occasionally used to take a wicket are now smashed all over the place. Batsmen who could be relied upon to score anything up to 15 now struggle to stay in for more than an over.

Obviously, such declines in form are not quite as hard to fathom as poor Hick's. After all, he has been under enormous pressure from an expectant public, and has had his every error pounced upon and ruthlessly analysed by the media.

The Captain Scott broken reeds, by contrast, have just had too many business lunches. Cruelly planted behind desks and the wheels of their company cars for two thirds of their waking hours, they have seen their youthful vitality trickle away, accompanied in many cases by their hair. Where once a proud, athletic team of chest-thumping supermen strode on to the pitch, there's now a paunchy, sad, domeheaded array of old crocks, quietly wheezing and spluttering as they limp out, heads bowed. On the sidelines sit their wives and girlfriends, looking worried. After all, the average age of the team is only 32.

Some reeds, fortunately, take the horrors of advancing age in their stride, and happily submit to lower positions in the batting order and ever briefer bowling spells. Others, though, do not. One such is our former demon fast bowler, who still runs up snarling and growling from about 50 yards away, but now bowls relatively gentle full tosses and long hops unencumbered by anything tricksy like movement off the pitch or through the air.

Batsmen facing the ex-demon usually assume that the ball is just his famous slower ball; then they realise they're all like that. Another prominent reed bowls his spell and then wonders aloud to all within earshot why 'it's not quite working today'. Naturally, his team-mates are far too well brought up to mention the vast mound of blubber now adorning his midriff, and the appearance of mighty 'love handles' just above his generously proportioned buttocks.

About the only vestige of expertise that does survive, in fact, is in the making of excuses. Like leg- spin bowling, making excuses is a skill that can only be honed to perfection with many years' experience. You still get the stock excuses that we all use, of course. 'It moved a mile.' 'Went straight along the ground.' 'Leapt up at my throat.' For dropped catches, 'I lost it in the trees.' For abysmal bowling, 'It's the hamstring.' But as other faculties fade, the excuses get more inventive. Long-delayed shoulder operations are a good one, while 'dodgy knees' can account for virtually everything. My favourite this year was from a reed who said he thought he'd contracted ME.

There are solutions to all this: get fit, don't smoke so much, try moving around a bit occasionally. My own is even more ingenious: don't be any good in the first place, because then you won't have any talents to lose. Graeme Hick, though, has far, far further to fall. If he ever feels like chucking it all in and coming and playing for us, I'm sure we could fit him in.