Cricket: False dawn suggests it is time to be bold

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The Independent Online
IN some ways it was fitting that England ended their tour with a rout in Port of Spain, a place where, just two months earlier, they had looked capable of competing with, if not beating, the West Indies. Yet, as so often is the case with England cricket teams, early form was misleading, and once again the scoreline reflected more their failure to sustain a competitive edge under pressure than any imbalance in ability. An imbalance that has done for one captain and may yet do for another.

If that sounds at all encouraging, it shouldn't. Apart from a lack of quality fast bowlers or a match-winning leg-spinner, these are the problems that have haunted England's cricket since the decline of Ian Botham in the mid-1980s. Even in the one-day series here, a type of game that has tended to suit England's shortage of true thoroughbreds, the will was bent.

In a game that can be broken down into individual parts, it is easy to blame the players. But they are the products of a county system that suspends reality and creates the manana cricketer, a player who treats defeat and victory not as impostors, as Kipling suggested, but as something that can always be rectified tomorrow.

The flight home, especially for those who arrived in the Caribbean on 3 January, will have been a journey of weary contemplation. Four years ago, the tour here ended in optimism after a young side led by a new captain had lost the Test series 3-1 and the one-dayers 3-2.

This time, with the series scores virtually replicated there must be frustration over England's lack of development against a side less potent than last time. Mind you, many felt Curtly Ambrose's impersonation of Richard Hadlee on stilts, was the best he had ever bowled and his 30 wickets at an average of 14.26, justifiably won him the man of the series.

Has much changed at all for England? On the face of it, not really: Angus Fraser, his 27 wickets equalling John Snow's record for a series in the Caribbean, was still the leading bowler, while Alec Stewart, despite a tired showing in the one-day matches, again looked the best batsman.

The only thing that has altered markedly, apart from Mark Ramprakash's long overdue arrival as a batsman of Test class, is that England are without the captain who brought them here. After 52 Tests in charge, Michael Atherton reign as England captain finally ended when he resigned at the end of the fifth Test in Antigua.

Atherton's departure was an emotional jolt, and the dressing-room scene following his announcement was one of utter dejection, with players in tears over what they no doubt saw as a betrayal of their leader. For his part, Atherton's scratchy form had made his position virtually untenable. Yet there was also a sense that all personal avenues at improving the side he had led for four and a half years, had been exhausted too.

Cricket has a fascination with its captains, and speculation will now flit between the main candidates until the first week in May, when a successor to Atherton as well as a one-day captain is announced.

They could, of course, be one and the same person, a route favoured by Mark Taylor as well as Brian Lara and one perhaps made more likely after Adam Hollioake's recent lightweight performances as one-day captain and player.

If that was the case, Alec Stewart would be the sole candidate. If it is not, and Hollioake continued as England's one-day captain, Nasser Hussain would come into the frame as an alternative to Stewart, now 35.

The arguments for Stewart, a fine servant to the game, are based, as many things in cricket tend to be, on a line of least resistance. Stewart, despite a proclivity for trying to mislead umpires by rubbing various parts of his anatomy whenever the ball strikes his glove, is seen as clean- cut and unlikely to ruffle many feathers; the devil you know, in other words.

In contrast, Hussain, despite an astute mind and media savvy, is seen as a risk. A passionate man who, like Ramprakash, is tethered to a chequered past, Hussain would be the bolder choice.

Unless seniority is of overriding importance, there seems little point in having a 35-year- old captain who, in the best interests of the team, should also keep wicket, doing the job as a stop-gap. If England cricket wants to move forward, a leap of faith needs to be taken.

If doubts about choosing flair over seniority exist, look at the West Indies selectors who, amid much criticism and controversy, appointed Brian Lara at the beginning of the series.

A controversial figure, Lara has proved to be an excellent choice, an astute captain unafraid to try the unusual. He had more bowling firepower at is disposal than Atherton, but the way a disjointed and despondent team wobbled, then rallied round him, showed power can just as often inspire as corrupt.

Finally, the compact itinerary of modern tours does not lend itself to the development of young players. Before the one-day series, England had two bowlers, Ashley Cowan and Chris Silverwood, whose experience of touring amounted to little more than being glorified net bowlers. They would be better off touring with the A side and learning about life in the middle rather than the periphery, a place where England are destined to remain until their players can regularly produce their best under pressure.