CRICKET IN CRISIS : Kick start needed for stalled system

TIME FOR A REVOLUTION?
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#Let me start with an anecdote, or maybe it is an analogy. I have an MGB (chrome bumpers), which I cherish for its quintessential Englishness. Some years back I sent it to a garage, highly recommended by the MG clubs, for a major overhaul: new seats, reconditioned engine, new panels and paint. When it came back it looked the part, but it had not been tuned properly, the seats were loose, the clutch was damaged and dripping fluid and, most frightening of all, the engine mountings had not been tightened. While to me that car meant something, to the so-called professionals it was just another job, and a job done poorly at that.

Now let us move on to county cricket, which provides the players for the England team. Like my MG it is an anachronism really: fine for the enthusiast and the connoisseur; in its element on the highways and byways of England but out of its league on the motorways.

English cricket, stuck in the slow lane too long for most people's liking, has needed rebuilding for years. Yet all that happens is a change of spark plugs in desperate days, so that the game can stutter on until the next breakdown. I would say it is too late now for reconditioning the old model if England are to be competitive in the new world of cricket. We need a brand new model, a structure that takes the game out of the hands of the counties and places it under a management with the intellectual vision and ability to administer a pyramid system that promotes excellence from age-groups upwards.

Unfortunately, and ironically given cricket's conservatism, achieving such a system will take a radical shift of Thatcherite dimensions. The professional counties would cease to operate as employers in their present form. They would become, at best, representative bodies within a national framework designed to bring on the best cricketers for England. This would destroy county cricket as it has functioned since Victorian times but, as the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana wrote: "Destruction is only the shady side of progress."

Nor should representative cricket be played all summer long. If the County Championship is an indicator, there is little demand for continual first- class cricket. The county game is a minor entertainment, followed at a remove from the grounds, and certainly no theatre could remain in business if its "audience" consisted primarily of those who followed plays, operas and the like only by reading the reviews.

Too much cricket is being played by the top players at all levels in England. At the MCC Festival in Oxford last July, a number of the best schoolboy cricketers were below par, owing to the amount of cricket they had played earlier in the season. Injury and exhaustion prevented some of them from going on to the showpiece matches at Lord's.

I would argue, and have argued, that the great need is time in which to practise. Practice, as opposed to "nets", seems to be anathema to English cricketers, yet as Gibbon reminds us, the Romans realised "the imperfection of valour without skill and practice... they comprehended whatever could add strength to the body, activity to the limbs, or grace to the motions". Nor did age and knowledge get the veterans out of the daily repetition of what they had already learned.

Somehow I cannot see Ian Botham, touted in some quarters as English cricket's new Messiah, being a Gibbon man. Botham is no Bobby Simpson or Bob Woolmer. It would be worth remembering that South Africa sacked their own unquenchable all-rounder, Mike Proctor, to bring in Woolmer.

Even so, I can understand the attraction of a vibrant personality such as Botham. The old pantomime king would make a champion spark plug, and heaven knows our cricket has been dull, unimaginative and joyless since his retirement. Some might even say its very problem is its John Major Englishness. But it is good coaches, not caviar, that English cricket is short on. We have fallen back dreadfully in technique as well as attitude over the years.

In Mike Atherton, England have an intelligent cricketer, as well as a good one. But much has been asked of him. In 1988, when Atherton led England in the Youth World Cup, the Young West Indians were captained by Brian Lara, who is still only West Indies' captain-in-waiting. Atherton, on the other hand, has already captained England through thick and a lot of thin in six and a third Test series, plus the World Cup.

In that Youth World Cup, incidentally, England, with nine county players, lost to Australia twice (once in the semi-finals), India and Sri Lanka, so Atherton is probably captaining to his handicap. The tournament was won by an Australian side coached by Jack Potter, who established Australia's acclaimed academy.

A glance at England's middle-of-the-road Under-19 record since then reinforces the case for a cricket academy here. In 14 series against the other Test- playing countries, they have won five and lost six "Test" series and won six and lost five one-day series.

But any academy would be worthless if all it did was turn out young cricketers for a county system that has passed its usefulness. Reforming that is where the real challenge lies, and no one seems willing to grasp it.

Graeme Wright is a former editor of Wisden

TABLE OF TEST CRICKET

There is no definitive assessment of the relative positions of the Test-playing nations, but the Independent's Table of Test Cricket is the most complete regularly updated study. Produced at the end of each calendar year, the 1995 table (below) shows England in sixth place of the nine Test nations, well behind the five teams above them, and only marginally ahead of Sri Lanka. Since the table was compiled England have lost the Test series in South Africa.

Home Away Series

Matches P W D L Pts Ave P W D L Pts Ave P W L Bonus Points

Australia 46 24 13 6 5 770 32.08 22 9 8 5 1220 55.40 12 7 3 11.66 99.14

Pakistan 32 12 5 5 2 350 29.17 20 9 4 7 1060 53.00 10 7 3 14.00 96.17

West Indies 28 12 6 3 3 360 30.00 16 6 6 4 840 52.50 9 5 1 11.11 93.61

South Africa 19 10 4 4 2 280 28.00 9 3 4 2 460 51.11 6 3 0 10.00 89.11

India 24 9 5 3 1 310 34.44 15 4 6 4 640 42.60 7 4 2 11.42 88.46

England 39 26 6 8 12 460 17.69 13 4 3 6 520 40.00 9 2 5 4.44 62.13

Sri Lanka 25 11 1 6 4 170 15.45 14 3 6 5 540 38.51 9 3 5 6.66 60.62

New Zealand 29 13 2 4 7 180 13.85 16 2 7 7 480 30.00 11 1 8 1.81 45.66

Zimbabwe 11 8 1 4 3 130 16.25 3 0 1 2 40 13.33 4 0 3 0 29.58

Points are calculated as follows: the table includes all matches over a four-year period dating back to 1 January 1992. Teams get 50 points for a home victory, 20 for a home draw and 0 for a defeat. From the home points total a home average is calculated. Teams get 100 points for an away victory, 40 for an away draw and 0 for an away defeat. From the away points total an away average is calculated. Bonus points are awarded for series victories. The number of series victories is divided by the number of series played and the total multiplied by 20. The total consists of the home average plus the away average plus the bonus points. Series must consist of at least two games. Drawn matches in which more than a third of the playing hours are washed out (10 or more hours or five or more sessions) are not counted.

THE ONE-DAY WORLD

The following table covers all one-day internationals played in the five-year period since the beginning of the 1991 English summer season.

P W L NR Ties Pct

Australia 100 63 35 1 1 63.00

Pakistan 115 62 47 1 5 53.91

India 95 51 41 1 2 53.68

West Indies 109 57 47 2 3 52.29

England 61 30 29 2 0 49.18

South Africa 79 38 41 0 0 48.10

Sri Lanka 92 40 47 5 0 43.47

New Zealand 84 33 46 4 1 39.28

Zimbabwe 42 6 34 0 2 14.28

England's performance in the one-day game can be traced by the following year-by-year breakdowns. It is interesting to note that only Zimbabwe have played fewer matches in this period.

1991-92 (2nd) 16 11 4 1 0 68.75

1992-93 (3rd) 13 7 6 0 0 53.84

1993-94 (8th) 8 2 6 0 0 25.00

1994-95 (2nd) 8 5 2 1 0 62.50

1995-96 (8th) 16 5 11 0 0 31.25

It is worth noting that Sri Lanka's average has risen from 23.07 in 1991-92 to 62.50 in 1995-96 following their win in the World Cup.

Research: Chris Mann

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