Cricket: England seek a new mood

Curtain rises on the season with an unlikely call for fresh spirit after World Cup campaign that ended in humiliation; Simon O'Hagan studies moves to fulfil unrealised talent in the game
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At the annual dinner to mark the publication of the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack three weeks ago the guest speaker was AC Smith, the chief executive of the Test and County Cricket Board. Wrestling with the vexed question of what is wrong with the England team, Smith told his audience that he had been struck while watching the World Cup by how much fun the other teams seemed to be having. "Somehow we've got to get that enjoyment back into the England side," he said.

These remarks took some listeners by surprise - not least because Smith, as far as his public persona is concerned anyway, is about as dry as they come, an establishment man to his polished shoes whose idea of what constitutes a good time would perhaps not quite accord with, say, Ian Botham's. There was also something a little naive about his assessment of England's problems - as if the team could simply smile their way out of the mire of failure into which they had well and truly sunk by the time Sri Lanka sent them packing in Faisalabad in early March.

For all that, Smith was hitting upon the aspect of England's winter that most dismayed their followers - the way that, over five months, the mood of optimism with which they set out for South Africa declined into a cussed negativity and an apparent loss of desire at a time when it should have been at its keenest.

So as the new domestic season drifts in on a not-so chill wind blowing across Fenner's and the Parks, the state of the game is yet again a subject of intense debate. The overblown saga of the appointment of two Test selectors is, mercifully, now ended, but somewhere down another corridor the David Acfield working party, set up in the light of England's World Cup failure, is doing whatever working parties do, and even further into the game's administrative recesses, committees and sub-committees are edging their way towards working out how to form an English Cricket Board.

Potentially far-reaching though these developments are - a more competitive county structure must be one outcome - none of them can be expected to mean a great deal to the wider cricketing public, to whom the most pressing question is whether England can get some pride back into their performances in this summer's two three-Test series, against India and Pakistan, and start winning again.

In many ways, the picture is not nearly as black as it is being painted. England's recent record in home Test series is quite respectable. Since the start of the 1990 season, they have won series against New Zealand (twice) and India, drawn twice with West Indies and once with South Africa, and been narrowly beaten by Pakistan. While the overwhelming home defeat by Australia in 1993 stands out, it has, on the whole, been on tours that England have conspicuously failed - which is why the arrival of spring always seems to bring with it the hand-wringing that is going on now. It should be stressed, however, that it was England's one-day form rather than their Test form which was the real disappointment of last winter.

If every year has come to represent a chance for the England team to make a fresh start, that is particularly the case going into the 1996 season, in which it is reasonable to expect some improvement - in outlook as much as anything - as a result of David Lloyd's appointment as coach.

Lloyd has said he wants the team to be fitter and run better between the wickets - basics which it seems incredible that any England cricketer should need reminding about.

With David Graveney back for a second term as a selector and Graham Gooch joining the panel, the number of people surrounding the England team with a close understanding of the contemporary game increases further. Whatever else the players may lack, relevant advice should not be among them.

Ah, the players. So little have they figured in the discussion of recent weeks that an outsider could have been forgiven for thinking that cricket was not a sport at all but simply a form of politics.

Great players do not abound in the English game, so the emphasis must be on making sure that every last ounce of potential is realised - something that plainly did not happen in South Africa. "Too many of us underperformed," said Graham Thorpe on his return, knowing he was one of them.

As a genuine world-class player himself, Thorpe is someone around whom England can confidently build for the future. So is Mike Atherton, whether or not he is captain, and Jack Russell, whose form in South Africa, with gloves and bat, was one of the few sources of real satisfaction and underlined what a nonsense it had been to keep him out of the team in favour of a so-called wicketkeeper-batsman in Alec Stewart.

This season may be crunch time for Stewart, who endured a worse winter than most. Robin Smith once more looks vulnerable, while Graeme Hick continues to resist the chance to establish himself beyond any doubt. Then there are John Crawley and Mark Ramprakash, players for whom a guaranteed extended run in the side may be what is required. However the selectors choose to play it, Nasser Hussain's return to the England team at some point this summer ought to be a safe bet.

On the bowling side, Darren Gough badly needs to be got hold of and given a shake if his England career is not to fizzle out, while the task with Dominic Cork is more one of keeping him fit. Is there an international future for Devon Malcolm? Last week's announcement by the TCCB that it would take no action after his outburst over the treatment he received in South Africa at the hands of Illingworth and Peter Lever suggests there is official as well as public sympathy for the position he was put in. Certainly Malcolm stands to gain more than most by the erosion of Illingworth's power-base.

The last Indian tour, six years ago, was a classic - a three-Test series, won by England, in which Gooch scored his 333, and there were no fewer than 14 other centuries. With Mohammed Azharuddin and the incomparable Sachin Tendulkar surviving from that side, not to mention the one that beat England 3-0 in India in 1992-93, the quality of Indian batsmanship will not be any lower. Pakistan's rancorous tour of 1992 was more about bowlers - or at least what they were alleged to have done to the ball - and once again England must face the hostility of Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram.

How well England do may depend on their powers of innovation and adaptability. "What the England team doesn't understand is that cricket has moved on," one overseas coach said last week. That was the undoubted message of the World Cup, where the Sri Lankans' destruction of England's bowling in the first 10 overs was only the most spectacular example of rule books being torn up.

In this respect, the counties have been ahead of England - among them Lancashire, which is why one can feel more confident about an England team under Lloyd. It is also the reason for backing Warwickshire to become the first county since Yorkshire in 1968 to complete a hat-trick of championships. Whether they do it or not, their enjoyment of the task should please AC Smith as well as plenty of others.