reports from East London
Another tour is over, and another series has been lost. Nothing surprising there. After all, the England team's ailments are well known and stem directly from the domestic game. Yet in spite of this incontrovertible fact, the usual autopsies will still be performed and the same old solutions proposed before being promptly ignored. As far as harbingers of change are concerned, it is an excercise in futility akin to dissecting a headless cadaver, simply in order to ascertain the cause of death.
Most of us know that, when it comes to sustaining the high level of performance needed to win a long series rather than just the odd game, England, their captain excepted, are consistently lacking in focus and application.
It is a weakness that has been symptomatic of England's cricket for some time, veiled by individuals such as Ian Botham, David Gower and Graham Gooch. Like Gooch before him, Michael Atherton has had to carry the batting to such an extent that it leaves him with little to give to his team, especially when their morale and performance have needed to be raised.
However, his ability to lead with his bat, particularly in Test matches, is something his team has always responded to, though the same has not been apparent in the current one-day series, where the sheer fatigue of a long tour has led to an indifference bordering on the gung-ho.
That approach must be tempered if England are to come away with anything from the two remaining one-dayers - the first, starting here this afternoon, the other in Port Elizabeth on Sunday. Asked what he thought of the one- day series, Atherton, still smarting over the lost Test match, said: "We came here to win the Test series. The one-dayers are a bit of fun at the end." It was a comment that ill-becomes his vision and style, and one that has rarely brought England success in any form of cricket.
But Atherton's men are tired, not from the fragmented cricket they have played on this tour, but from the deep-seated fatigue caused by performing and travelling on a relentless year-round treadmill. Understandably, their cricket often lacks the meanness that characterises competitive sides with limited talent, and too often their cricket has fallen foul of avoidable carelessness.
No other team in the world plays during a northern summer, unless they are touring England. Next winter England had been promised a Christmas at home. Instead they will play two away series with a three-day window between them - the first in Zimbabwe and the second in New Zealand. Instead of returning home they fly straight from Harare to Auckland.
However, if the international programme cannot be reduced, then the domestic one must be, although both would be greatly enhanced by bolder cuts than the cosmetic surgery occasionally applied to appease the swelling ranks of dissenters.
Strangely, it is not a view shared by the England manager, Raymond Illingworth, who, in craggy Yorkshireman mould, rebuffed the claim that modern tours are far more hectic and demanding than their more sedate pre-1970 counterparts.
"That's rubbish," he said yesterday. "I remember on the 1962/63 tour of Australia going on a journey from Brisbane to Sydney, then changing planes to go to Perth, before finishing with a 200-mile coach journey up country. That were restful alright, especially when I was told by the team manager, Billy Griffith, that I couldn't have a sweet with me meal."
However, Illingworth is prepared to lay a large part of the blame for England's lack of consistent quality on county door- steps, blaming coaches as well as those resistant to change, in particular the competitive edge he feels two divisions would bring.
"I've been pushing for that for over 20 years," he said ruefully, patting down the few strands of hair that had survived the same period. "But there are just too many arguments from non-cricketing sources listened to for it to be accepted." An attitude, Illingworth thinks, that will also stymie a single national academy, should one ever be built.
And yet, the problem does not appear to lie at the lower levels of talent, as the recent exploits of the England Under-19 team has shown. But where other countries take and develop their talented individuals, such as South Africa have done with 18-year-old Paul Adams and 20-year-old Jacques Kallis, the county system holds them back, rarely playing them in front of more experienced players, until it is too late and confidence and desire are at a low ebb.
The county stranglehold is a difficult one to break. If England do manage to win the World Cup, crucial changes to the game's infrastructure will again be shelved, and a memo circulated that everything is still rosy in the garden. If English cricket is to change for the better, then Atherton's team must continue in Pakistan as they have here, and lose at all costs.
As far as today goes, Craig White opens with Mike Atherton, and Jack Russell has been given the chance of batting at No 4. Alec Stewart is unavailable because of his hand injury.
ENGLAND SQUAD (One-day international v South Africa, East London, today): M A Atherton (Lancashire, capt), C White (Yorkshire), R A Smith (Hampshire), R C Russell (Gloucestershire), G A Hick (Worcestershire), N H Fairbrother (Lancashire), G P Thorpe (Surrey), D G Cork (Derbyshire), N M K Smith (Warwickshire), D Gough (Yorkshire), R K Illingworth (Worcestershire), P J Martin (Lancashire).Reuse content