Cricket: England wake up to opportunities

Martin Johnson looks back at an eventful season and argues that one of the three one-day competitions must be sacrificed to give the Test side a real chance of success
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As English cricket turns out the lights on the 1995 season and snuggles beneath the duvet in anticipation of a bright new dawn, what will we find when the alarm goes off? If recent tradition is anything to go by, it will be a bleary-eyed peek through the curtains to find out that it's hosing down again.

This time, however, even though the mere suggestion is a case of poking your finger into the eye of fate, English cricket at last appears to be equipping itself with an umbrella for the next rainy day. The lights are on in St John's Wood, and, just for once, someone appears to be at home.

For all the residual bleatings of a few county treasurers (who would not have any offices to bleat from were it not for charity hand-outs from Test match revenues) four-day cricket has already demonstrated that passengers have fewer places to hide. As a breeding ground for Test cricket, the three-day stuff was a bit like searching for a fly fisherman on the deck of a North Sea trawler.

Given that the counties are, by nature, less inclined towards nettle- grasping than simply being grasping, a high-voltage cattle prod may be required before there are any further leaps forward, but even a body as innoculated against change as the Test and County Cricket Board must eventually embrace the benefits of a more streamlined system.

If so, there may yet be a mercifully short period before the guillotine descends on one of the three one-day competitions, which do so much to promote the strap-hanging commuter fatigue in the domestic game. The Australians know full well that England's problem is not a shortage of talent, but the system. International cricket is now far too intense to plonk a saddle on to a Skegness donkey and expect it to win the Derby.

The good news is that the man fighting the Test team's corner deals in hard-nosed realism rather than romantic reverie. The only reason the young Raymond would have popped his Christmas present list up the chimney for Santa would have been to charge his parents for saving the cost of a first- class stamp to Lapland.

If anyone can cut through the old school tie school of flannel, it is Illingworth, and in Michael Atherton, England have a captain who is similarly committed to shaking the system, and who has been stuffed by the Australians too often not to have learned something from them.

Atherton remains enough of a gentleman to have rejected some of the more yobbish aspects of Australian Test cricket, but as an unashamed admirer of their single-minded approach, he has done away with England's Marquis of Queensbury approach, and shoved a horseshoe into the glove.

Furthermore, Illingworth and Atherton have now decided that they are on the same side. Atherton is more inclined to bite his tongue than the chairman (one of Raymond's more endearing traits is to get hot under the collar about other people being outspoken), but his refusal to be a junior partner has ultimately strengthened England's direction.

In some ways, failing to beat a West Indies side struggling in the wind and limb department after three series in the preceding six months was a disappointment, but the West Indies remain formidable opposition, and had it not been for a dog of a pitch at Edgbaston, England might have seen them off for the first time since 1969.

The international summer began, as is traditional, with the Texaco Trophy, which, along with football's League Cup, makes far too heavy a demand on the memory when it comes to recalling who won four months on. Apparently, it was England (2-1) which is a reminder that they are among the favourites for this winter's World Cup in India and Pakistan.

Unlike Test matches, you can win one-day games without actually getting anyone out, which brings us to the usual problem of whether England will be left with anyone capable of taking a wicket in South Africa. Picking a fast bowler for England is the equivalent of shoving a chunk of kryptonite down Superman's tights and, when the last roll call was taken, four of their six selections for the winter were grappling with various degrees of infirmity.

This again (at the risk of a small conflagration from Fred Trueman's pipe) may be related to too heavy a workload, but for whatever reason, English fast bowlers are rarely far away from a physio's couch. Darren Gough, cast as English cricket's latest saviour this time last year, has barely been fit all summer.

While Gough has (one hopes temporarily) slipped back, the brightest find of the season has undoubtedly been Dominic Cork. The Derbyshire all-rounder (he is not yet an England one) is definitely a case of "whatever he's on, I'll have some too", and it is Cork's kind of controlled arrogance and energy which England need to thread right through their cricket.

It is difficult to sustain under current workloads (in only four weeks' time, the plane leaves for Johannesburg) and it is the burn-out risk which has persuaded Allan Donald - with, one suspects, some financial encouragement from the South African Cricket Board - not to make himself available for county cricket next season, or, perhaps, ever again. If the West Indies' Cricket Board could afford it, they, too, would probably make it worth their top players' while not to come here any more.

There is usually one sad loss in a season - last year it was Brian Johnston, and this time Harold Larwood. Whether, purely in professional terms, it is time to lose another institution, is a matter for the Test and County Cricket Board, but it would be a shame if Dickie Bird, increasingly prone to error, and invariably looking as though he has been asked to make a decision on whether to launch a nuclear war rather than an lbw appeal, goes on too long.

Northamptonshire will have felt aggrieved at Bird's failure to give Dermot Reeve out lbw in the NatWest Trophy final, particularly as Reeve went on to win the match for Warwickshire. Reeve was probably the player of the season, even though Mark Ramprakash's late avalanche of runs was further evidence of a remarkable, but as yet unfulfilled, talent.

Atherton would be thereabouts in a photo-finish, too, and, as was the case with his predecessor, Graham Gooch, has earned the honour of representing the opposition's most prized scalp since taking over the captaincy. Last season, he was on the brink of losing the job over the footling dirt-in- the-pocket nonsense, although he was less angry about cameras homing in on his flannels in 1994 than he was about having pictures of his trouserless bottom plastered all over the Sun newspaper this summer.

Warwickshire were once again the team of the season, even though they cleaned up only 50 per cent of the silverware compared to 1994's 75 per cent. However, they were only deprived of the Sunday title on run-rate after finishing level on points with Kent, who ended their own 17-year trophy drought by winning the coloured clothing league.

County cricket now slips into its own pyjamas for another winter's hibernation, but if the buzz of April's lawnmowers seems a depressingly long time off, England still have the thick end of five months' cricket to play before then.

Illy is going with them this time, and while Raymond's slightly narrow view of the outside world will doubtless involve lengthy moans about Faisalabad not having a lot in common with Farsley, Atherton - for several reasons - will be happy to have his chairman where he can see him.