Cricket: A silent testimony to inadequacy

Stephen Fay says the evidence of decline echoed around Old Trafford
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The Independent Online
THE TOUTS at Old Trafford tram station were offering to buy or sell tickets for the third day of the Test yesterday. They were not saying how much they would actually pay for a ticket, but it could not have been much because one of their colleagues stood in front of the box-office and said that his price was cheaper than the official one.

Only 9,000 tickets had been sold for yesterday's play, and officials blamed the murky Lancashire weather for putting off the passing trade. But much of the action has been as irritating as yesterday morning's weather, which delayed the start for 45 minutes. Only New Zealanders have left any part of this game with a spring in their step, and they are thin on the ground. Unofficial estimates put the crowd at 10,000, which would have disappointed most First Division football teams. Wisden Cricket Monthly rated this Test the top attraction of the month. A sad miscalculation.

The England and Wales Cricket Board were trying to show grace under pressure. The spokesman said that the budgeted crowd was 35,000, and, since they had managed to attract 30,000 in the first three days, that was going to be met. Maybe, but last year's Old Trafford Test against South Africa brought in 50,000 spectators. Lancashire cricket followers have voted with their feet. They have stayed at home and put them up. Last year, Lancashire banned fancy dress which might obstruct the view. This year they would surely have welcomed spectators who chose to wear no clothes at all.

David Graveney's view is that the England team have to earn the support of the public, but what they have done at Lord's and again at Old Trafford is to fritter it away. They have some excuses. It is true that they have batted when the ball was seaming and swinging and bowled when it was neither swinging nor spinning. But their body language speaks of defeatism, as though they expect the ball to spin past the edge or fall just short of a fielder. The enduring image is of Graham Thorpe's impassive face after he dropped Matthew Horne before he had scored.

There is something important at stake in this series. New Zealand are ranked last in the Wisden World Championship, a table based on the results of the last seven Test series played between the nine Test nations. England rank seventh, just above Zimbabwe. If this series is drawn, England will slip to eighth, but this has become a battle for the wooden spoon. If England lose it, they will plunge to the bottom of the table. England will be unofficially the worst Test team in the world. No one who has watched them here or at Lord's could seriously question that judgement.

The sage John Woodcock says that England winning a Test series can be "wonderfully beneficial". Not much chance of that this summer, but before play began yesterday, one of those rare moments happened - in complete silence. The two teams and the officials stood in front of the pavilion for one minute, to remember Cyril Washbrook, Len Hutton's opening partner for England, and Lancashire's finest batsman in the post-war period.

The praise was led by Lord Sheppard - The Rev David, former Bishop of Liverpool, - who succeeded Washbrook as England's opener. He reminded us of the number of runs Washbrook had scored (34,101, including 2,569 for England, at an average of 42.81).

On the board of honour in the Old Trafford pavilion, Washbrook is commemorated twice, as captain from 1954 to 1959 (the first professional to do so), and chairman from 1989 to 1990. There is a photograph of the 1958 team with Washbrook looking imperturbable, laconic, and stylish.

For many of the spectators in the pavilion, remembering Washbrook was wonderfully beneficial because it reminded them of sunny days when England opened with Hutton and Washbrook, who were followed by Edrich and Compton, and England cricketers were heroic figures. Washbrook's name was a remembrance of lost youth, and it deserved a tear. I know because I shed one myself.

Washbrook was recalled by England in 1956 when he was 41. He died in April, aged 85. Had he lived, England might have done worse than to recall him again, to open the batting.