Cricket: England afflicted by bad habits and low ambition

Cricket: Wholesale restructuring of domestic game needed to produce Test-quality players
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The Independent Online
THE DEBaCLE that was the second Test wasn't the first time England have stumbled at Lord's and judging by the paucity of talent around the country it won't be the last. After the defeat, England's sixth in their last 10 Tests at HQ, David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, spoke of the home side's cricket "haemorrhaging" and of scores "just not appropriate for Test cricket".

He is spot on, but proving culpability, as any student lawyer will tell you, is rarely straightforward. For decades, identifying English cricket's epicentre of blame has occupied minds from public bars to the most powerful of salons. So far no lasting solution has been found, which means that the game, or at least a large part of it, must be in denial.

Over recent years, England's cricketers have been serial offenders, making the same errors match upon match. This continued inability to learn from their mistakes, suggests two things: either they are soft in body and mind; or the system that forges them is. New Zealand won the second Test by being focused and tough, not because they had superior firepower with ball or bat.

After watching England these past few days, the evidence for blaming county cricket is overwhelming. The batting, especially, was riddled with examples of poor shot selection and faulty technique and one can only wonder what county coaches are employed for.

Where, too, is the net, or for that matter the rigour, to sift out the technical shortcomings of players like Aftab Habib, whose three Test innings have been painful to watch? Habib's lack of footwork, along with his tendency to get his bat out in front of his pad, means he has two Achilles' heels. At Test level, against predatory bowlers, one is too many.

Habib's exposure to the highest level has once more shown that the step up from county to Test cricket is not so much a notch, as a quantum leap. Who would be a selector when the old yardstick of runs and wickets have become such a devalued currency?

Inevitably, in this culture of complaint, some coaches will point to poor pitches as being at the heart of the problem. This in turn means pointing the finger at the groundsmen, who will shrug and say they are under pressure from the cricket committee to produce result surfaces.

The chain of blame is endless, which is why constitutional reform of the England and Wales Cricket Board, and in particular the veto powers of the First Class Forum, may be the only way for meaningful change to take place. Those who believe that a two-division Championship will improve standards are the same deluded souls who saw four-day cricket as the ultimate panacea at the beginning of the decade. English cricket needs four or five teams of the best players playing against each other with a feeder system below that. The easiest way to achieve that is to return county cricket to its three-day origins and have a four-day regional competition overlaying that.

That way the elite play regional games and internationals, except when there is a Test on. Then those not picked, go back and play for their counties. Test players are contracted centrally but could, for old times' sake, play for their original counties in a one-day competition. Certainly, something needs to be done to bridge the widening gulf between Test and county cricket.

At present few are immune to domestic cricket's contagion of bad habits, and having witnessed the dismissal of his brother-in-law Mark Butcher to a poor shot off Daniel Vettori, Alec Stewart succumbed to one as well. It was an appalling mistake, made worse by the fact that he had got a start.

Stewart has never been a fluent player against spin and now that he is struggling generally his scoring options against the slower stuff have all but dried up. Instead of waiting for Vettori to tire and lose his tempo, he tried the county option, which is to slog him off his line. It failed, which is why those suggesting he see his Test career out in the middle-order, where he is more likely to be greeted by spin, are misguided.

The failures of two other senior players, Graham Thorpe and Mark Ramprakash, were also soft. Chris Cairns has a decent slower ball but such prestidigitation should only get decent batsmen out when they are looking to take risks - not when they are trying to play themselves in during a Test match, as Thorpe should have been.

To be so unbalanced Thorpe must have been looking to attack the ball before he was set, something that John Bracewell, Gloucestershire's Kiwi coach, reckons is symptomatic of most batsmen in the County Championship.

A year ago, Bracewell told me that there were hardly any English qualified cricketers in the Championship trying to bat like Michael Atherton any more. There was no building an innings and most simply came in and played a shot a ball. It is a point Graveney also referred to in his post-mortem of England's defeat, and one that could well see Atherton return to his home ground for the next Test.

The failure of senior players, something to which England teams seem especially prone, make it difficult to blood talented youngsters like Chris Read and Alex Tudor. The ideal is to give them first-hand experience of Test cricket without exposing them to excessive pressure early on.

Before his plucky 37 in the second innings at Lord's, Read's batting had looked naive, which at the age of 20, it probably is. It looks as if he is quick learner, which his fortunate - his next exam at Test level is likely to involve standing up to two spinners on a dry pitch at Old Trafford.

The bowling at Lord's, although less exposed than the batting, bore the signs of county cricket, where pitches and opponents tend to demand minimal imagination. Apart from Vettori outbowling Phil Tufnell on his home ground, it was Chris Cairns who showed what it takes. Bristling with aggression and intent - some would say too much testosterone was on display - Cairns never allowed batsmen to settle, his clever changes of pace perfect for the pitch. At Edgbaston, where the pitch and atmosphere provided all the chicanery needed, he stuck to bowling line and length - in other words he tailored his bowling to the conditions. For some reason English bowlers, their tried and trusted stock ball effective enough in county cricket, are reticent to do this.

To blame county cricket alone would be admitting the chicken came before the egg. Most systems, however refined, cannot produce steel from putty. It would help, too, if the majority of the players attracted to the game had more ambition than to reach a benefit season.

As it stands, the epitaph of most county cricketers would read: "He aimed low in life and missed."

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