Cricket: MacLaurin lifts general gloom

FIRST TEST: Atherton and England left frustrated as rain prevents them from maintaining their momentum against Australia
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It was the first time in five years that a whole day had been lost in a home Test match without a ball being bowled. With persistent light rain still falling, play was called off at 4.55pm. It was an announcement that gave what was widely regarded as the hottest ticket in town, all the kudos of a soggy handkerchief.

The wash-out means that the England and Wales Cricket Board will refund all ticket holders, an offer that will cost their insurers pounds 650,000. The last time Lord's made such a claim was when the West Indies were here in 1991, when play was abandoned without a ball bowled. On that occasion, there was a treat in store and both sides were invited round to Buckingham Palace to have tea with the Queen.

There was no such sweetener yesterday, where a patient and well behaved crowd went away as frustrated as the players. It may appear to be in England's strategic interests to get past Lord's with their lead intact, but they are on a roll and two-up is even better than remaining on one.

As umpires stomped and ground staff mopped, it was interesting to watch the body language of England's captain, Michael Atherton. Formerly an avid weather watcher who rejoiced in rain, Atherton stalked about with hands on hips like a gunslinger eager to get on with the shoot-out. With the captain this keen, the rest of the dressing-room must have reeked of wasted adrenalin and this Test will need four clear days to mop up the excess.

Some of the gloom here, however, was leavened by Lord MacLaurin, who paid fulsome tribute to England's dynamic start to the season. The chairman of the ECB felt that since the "shambles" of those one-day defeats in Zimbabwe, the players had responded "brilliantly" to suggestions made to them.

"We decided we wanted a complete dialogue with the players," MacLaurin said. "So after the third loss in Harare, I went into the dressing-room to draw a line under that performance and make it plain that we would sink or swim together. The England team are our shop window and I wanted them to know that we at the ECB would do all we could to support them."

By applying the same management principles as he would to a branch of Tesco, MacLaurin has won the trust and respect of England's suit-suspicious cricketers. A three-day management development course at Heythrop, in Oxfordshire, during April began the processes of teamwork and co-operation. An ongoing procedure, it was given the MacLaurin touch last week, when all those involved at Edgbaston received a bottle of champagne and a personal letter of congratulation.

There is little doubt, however, that MacLaurin is loath to take the lion's share of the credit. He has an natural instinct for getting people on- side, and although messianic would perhaps be too strong a word, he and his team seem to have worked a minor miracle. In one fell swoop he has led the players into a world brimming with self-belief while getting rid of the confusion, secrecy and ambiguity that used to poison previous relationships between hierarchy and players.

Instead he has simplified the players' role and brought a renewed understanding to it. "They are closer to us than ever before," he said, adding that the current improvements were the fruits borne of 15 per cent of a 100 per cent plan. That plan will be released in full on 5 August under the ECB's proposed strategy for all cricket.

Meanwhile, with Lord's shrouded in gloom, thoughts were turned to sunny weather with the announcement of this winter's tour managers. David Graveney, with the blessing of the Professional Cricketers' Association, will manage the first part of the winter, when England play a one-day tournament in Sharjah between 11 and 20 December, a tournament that will be preceded by a week in Lahore.

Graveney will then hand over responsibilities to Bob Bennett, who will manage the team in the West Indies. As chairman of Lancashire, Bennett will join both Atherton and Lloyd to form something of a red rose mafia.

As MacLaurin himself admitted: "It may look a bit incestuous, but its the characters that count." Something English cricket has at last discovered.