Cricket: How criticism can be a catalyst for unity

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The Independent Online
IN CASE anybody thinks differently, it is worth pointing out that the England dressing-room was full of profoundly disappointed men after the Second Test defeat against New Zealand. History had been made. It was the first time in more than 60 years of trying that the Kiwis had won at Lord's.

We knew we had played badly, we knew we deserved to lose. After the match was over, after the deeds which led to our downfall had been committed we had an honest, open meeting. There was no point in hiding, there was no hiding place. The second innings in which we needed 172 to make the opposition bat again had contained some ill-judged strokes.

Both Alec Stewart and Mark Butcher would probably play different shots if they had their time again. I certainly would. I had got myself in, I was feeling settled if a little perplexed by the New Zealanders' defensive tactics. Then I received a wide one outside off stump and thought it deserved punishing. I went for it and edged behind. Maybe it was too wide, it was a misjudgement and I have to admit that.

So it was a sombre mood and in its wake the defeat has brought castigation and derision. That is part of playing sport in the public eye, under the spotlight. Any honest assessment of England's performance both in the first innings and second innings at Lord's would have to conclude the obvious: we did not score enough runs to put the opposition under pressure.

There are one or two observations that should be made. Batting in a Test match is a question of balance and tempo. In Australia last winter England were bombarded with criticism for not being more assertive in taking the attack to the Aussies. At Lord's, before we set out to cut the deficit, we decided that we would do so by selective attacking.

After the new-ball overs the Kiwis' tactics became somewhat introverted. Suddenly, they did not play as if they had a commanding lead. They were containing. This heightened England's difficulty but we played some shots. Now these proved to be ill-advised because we got out. But this balance factor remains a delicate one.

On the one hand we might be expected to attack, to play shots, on the other we are mindful that it is a five-day game, that innings can be eked out through sheer graft. Balance and tempo.

At Edgbaston, England won with a deliberate policy of attack and it came off. The side were heroes, now we are villains. It was noticeable at Lord's last Saturday night as Aftab Habib and I were batting. The position was obviously perilous, England were three wickets down and up against it and we were cautious. Sections of the crowd slow-handclapped. Balance and tempo.

Batting is a knife-edge occupation. There is an element of risk in every shot you play. Half-volleys can be nicked to the keeper. It is the fine judgement that we got wrong last weekend. The criticism is bound to have an effect on the side in some form and might infuse doubts in some. But it must also, as I have stressed before, act as a catalyst for uniting the side.

England played badly but they have to remain positive, to go to Old Trafford seeking that balance once more - prepared to play six good balls in a row or 18 good balls in a row and hit the bad one when it comes along.

It might also be pertinent to remember on the eve of the Third Test that it is 1-1 in the series, that despite the criticism that has been levelled at England, there is still plenty to play for, the team are not behind. That, I reckon, is a crucial point in assessing the damage so far.

It would have been useful for all the England batsmen to have a Championship match after the Second Test and before the Third. For batsmen playing for England that can be a good combination: Test, Championship, Test, Championship. But the peculiarities of the fixture list have not allowed it.

None of the batsmen who played at Lord's - which is not to say, of course, that they will be the batsmen who are selected for Manchester - has had a chance to play a long innings in a four-day match since. This is not exactly helpful. Nasser Hussain's Essex are playing in one of the three Championship matches but, of course, Nasser is not fit. His broken finger last Saturday had an effect on the team, of course it did. So early in his tenure it was a rotten accident. He is batting so well we must hope he is fit. But we can cope without him. As for the replacement captain, should there need to be one, well if Michael Atherton were to be selected in the side and asked to lead it, I don't think any player would object.

Finally, a word for New Zealand. They are a solid unit with some decent bowlers who got it where it counted at Lord's. But they can be beaten and it is England's job at Old Trafford to ensure that they are. It will be interesting to hear the reaction then.