Cricket: England bad luck is well deserved

England had just capitulated once again in the Test series against Australia and were searching for all manner of excuse for their pitiful showing. Martin Johnson thought Graham Gooch was fast coming to the conclusion that our game should be written off as a playground for malingerers and dunderheads
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England fly to Auckland tonight for three one-day internationals in New Zealand - a suitable punishment if ever there was one - with a team as knackered as it is demotivated, and a captain reflecting that the happiest time he spent in Australia was three weeks in a hospital bed unable to watch England playing cricket.

Sixteen months after losing 4-0 in a six-match series to Australia, England have now been beaten 3-0 in a contest that gave them one less opportunity to lose 4-0, and the only real difference between now and 1989 is that they once or twice found themselves in a position to win.

However, whenever this prospect presented itself, it was always the signal for an England wicket to represent the first pebble in an avalanche. It was truly remarkable to behold and scaled the height of disbelief in Melbourne, when England turned a probable scoreline of 1-1 into 0-2 in a period not much longer than the average lunch-break.

No side can capitulate as often and as spectacularly as England have done on this tour, without something being hopelessly wrong. Some, like the team manager, point the finger at the domestic system inhibiting talent, others like the captain, at talented players turning up with a bucket and spade, knotted hankie on the head mentality.

There must always be periods of recreation, even on tours as hard as this one, but an aeroplane ride on a match day is perhaps a touch over the top, and as for the vice-captain, not out at a crucial stage of a Test match spending the night at a casino further away than Brighton is from Lord's, it is almost beyond belief.

In the past three months, Graham Gooch's designer stubble has made significant progress towards the same colour as the centre of Mike Gatting's beard, largely because of the shortcomings of particular individuals. Little more than a month after being awarded the OBE for services to English cricket, he is now wondering whether English cricket should be written off as a playground for malingerers and dunderheads.

Gooch is not a man unwilling to forgive gallant failure, but public humiliation is quite something else. Australian crowds have turned up not only to witness England getting beaten, but to watch a travelling vaudeville show. The highest profile England player in Australia over the past three months has not been Gooch or even Gower, but Philip Tufnell, whose fielding, even in a team of tailor's dummies, has turned him into a bigger cult figure than Merv.

England have not had the best of luck, admittedly, although losing one of their best batsmen for two Tests because he tore a calf muscle on a five-mile jog shortly after scoring a century, is closer to imbecility than bad luck. Neither does falling into a trap you would scarcely keep baiting for a 10-year-old, as David Gower did in Adelaide, rate any closer to bad luck than losing your shirt playing "find the lady" in a West End back street.

However, there are also questions that might be asked about individuals higher up in English cricket, not least the chairman of the English committee, Ted Dexter, businessman, golfer, and occasional visitor to Test matches, in many ways, is a refreshing antidote to the intense, po-faced world that international cricket has now become, but living on the periphery inevitably leads to lightweight involvement in weighty matters.

Then there is the team manager, Micky Stewart, still lost to an extent in post-Gatting tristesse, and fighting a losing corner in his battle to raise establishment priority for the international team. It is not his fault that he is (to use a phrase Gooch employed recently when talking about trying to drill discipline into his team) "farting against thunder", but if he cannot get anyone that counts to listen to him, what is the point of having him?

England remains the only Test-playing nation in the world in which the national side is something other than top of the agenda, however much the chairmen of the counties would claim otherwise, and it will remain so until county cricket is geared - like Sheffield Shield cricket in Australia - almost exclusively to finding the best XI in the land.

There is more energy expended on finding people to pay for having their name daubed on outfields or emblazoned across players' shirts. Let us not forget also the overseas tours committee, who organise overseas visits as though they were in charge of a team of Subbuteo players. England, for all their failings here, have now been playing virtually non-stop for 14 months.

As for individuals on this tour, there has been very little to lighten a bleak picture. Australia are off to the West Indies shortly, and may do fairly well. Frankly, the prevailing optimism here may have a fairly shallow base. If Australia are currently to be judged on the standard of the opposition, then they have a team that is no more than adequate.

England's bowlers have not really let them down and Devon Malcolm and Angus Fraser form as good a new-ball pairing as almost any around. Unfortunately, Gooch has been using them as hod-carriers, and while they have been eliminated in the search for suspect hearts, the body work is beginning to rebel.

Tufnell has the potential to become an outstanding left-arm spin bowler for England, but he has something of a playboy image, and may be one of those for whom Gooch fears a squandering of natural ability.

This regime, based as it is on the cross-country run and the cold shower, may also have decided it can no longer accommodate Gower. It is not difficult to see why, but it would be no less sad if one of the great natural talents were to be lost to the international stage. Australians love him and his free spirit and ability to play as much with his opponents as against them, but neither does this mean that they would necessarily have him in their own team unless he conformed to the system.

There were one or two mistakes in selection for this tour, which have cost England dearly, not least the absence of a left-handed opener. If missing the boat with Hugh Morris was a forgivable error at original selection, then it certainly was not when they actually had him out here. England might have had bad luck, but by and large they have deserved it.