Cricket: Lapse which spells collapse

Stephen Brenkley argues that the mental Test is still baffling the best brains in cricket
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The Independent Online
DURING the cliff-hanging final Test, England's largest shortcoming has again been alarmingly evident. This is not their lack of technique, style or ambition, although all those facets of their approach may be affected. What remains wrong with England, bless them, is that they appear to assume that con- centration is some horrific camp where certain torture awaits and escape is by far the wisest policy.

As they batted on the first day, members of their top, middle and lower orders failed to concentrate when it was obvious that the pitch demanded it. They played shots which did not particularly exhibit defective foot movement, faulty backlift or poor head positioning, but certainly betrayed at least the possibility that the prospect of some sun-kissed beach whence they might flee upon completion of their summer's work had flashed through their minds.

It did not improve when they bowled, actually it became worse. Some of the bowlers might have been guilty of failing to put the ball in the appropriate portion of the pitch often enough but, well, it has long been thought that many England bowlers could actually be of better use on some sun-kissed beach, unless, that is, there was a game of cricket going on. On this occasion, as it happened, the bowlers were all but blameless.

But the fielding clinched it. Some of the groundwork was not as adroit as it should have been, but the dropping of three catches in 22 balls and a fourth later on represented a model of lost concentration. The buzz word of the modern sportsman is focus but as Nasser Hussain, Mark Ramprakash, Graeme Hick and, marginally less culpably, Alec Stewart all spilled chances which were as easy as shelling peas it was clear that England's knowledge of focus might be confined to an idiot-proof Kodak.

It was compulsive viewing, but it was not a pretty picture.Here was a clear indication of the lengths to which this team still have to travel. They should have been lifted by Ramprakash's stunning catch at midwicket; instead, briefly, it was as if they assumed the job was done. It has been like this for four or five years. Each time they assure us they have made progress they demonstrate the point by going backwards. Presumably, precious and expensive man hours are spent on readying them for the rigours of Tests. Mike Brearley, a former England captain, once observed that Tests are akin to mini-campaigns of strategy and intrigue, hard-fought battles in a war which is the series. Yet England still contrive to look as though they have prepared to take part in Whacky Races.

It is daft and is also presumably beyond the comprehension of psychologists, otherwise one or other of them who are attached to all top sports teams these days would have done something to rectify it. Most players fear losing, it is almost as is if England are afraid of winning. Uncertain of what it feels like perhaps.

There are, of course, two England players who embody the most important Test match attribute of all. At various times in the past year Gus Fraser and Mike Atherton have been consigned to history. Their guts, heart, toughness, determination and bloody-mindedness have all been rightly singled out. But what they have and what enables them both to be such enviable craftsmen, carpenters producing a beautifully sculpted cabinet, is the ability to concentrate ball after ball, over after over.

When their colleagues, bloody-thumbed chippies who have misdirected their chisels, acquire this virtue they will have arrived. Of course, they might not be as much fun to watch.