Cricket / Second Test: England: from bad to worse and beyond: Richard Williams on why radical change, long overdue, must happen now

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AT PRECISELY two o'clock on Thursday afternoon, 10 minutes into the second session, with the Australians at 116 for no wicket in their first innings on the opening day of the second Test in the 1993 Ashes series, the BBC1 cameras cut away from Lord's to show us Her Majesty the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Princess Royal and their various guests and attendants proceeding in a ceremonial carriage parade down the racecourse at Ascot, waving to the Ladies Day crowd. Lord love a duck. No wonder we can't play the bloody game any more.

Over on the other side, BBC2 was showing Sesame Street. Muppets on both channels, in other words. Furry muppets, and muppets in silly hats. And, after a quarter of an hour, when the grand panjandrum of the British Broadcasting Corporation decided that it was time to turn back to the suffering in St John's Wood, muppets in white flannels.

It is nonsense to suggest, as one commentator did yesterday, that England are being beaten by a great team under the leadership of a captain at the height of his powers. What distinguishes this touring party is less its standing against its predecessors than the attitude, collective and individual, of its players. Allan Border believes that success in Test cricket owes more to 'character, guts, determination and personality than innate talent and skill', and in respect of the present series he is absolutely correct.

The most attractive aspect of his team's display in this match has been the general keenness to get on with it, in particular the way the batsmen are looking for the first run the instant the ball is off the bat. Whether Border's hypothesis would look quite so good if tested against the West Indians or Pakistanis is another matter.

Against Graham Gooch's England, though, it is more than enough to do the job. Whatever happens during the next two days at Lord's, no purpose whatever can be served by Gooch's retention of the captaincy. To see him labouring in the field at Lord's as he did in India, when he was a long way from home and fitness, is both unexpected and pathetic. Shoulders hunched, head bowed, he plods from end to end, the embodiment of a lost cause. The handclaps at the start of each over, the pat on a bowler's back at the end, are automatic, meaningless, mere signals of consolation rather than encouragement.

His failure yesterday, top-edging an ill-advised hook off Merv Hughes down to Tim May at deep fine leg, hardly damages Gooch's standing as a batsman of world class. His resistance in the second innings at Old Trafford was, until its bathetic end, genuinely heroic. Even after his 40th birthday, which occurs next month, he will be worth a place for his batting throughout the series. As a captain, though, he is of no further use to England.

Should he resign after this match, as seems possible, he would do so against the entreaties of his chairman of selectors, Dexter, and his team manager, Fletcher. Yet such a decision would achieve a rather poetic symmetry: it would leave Gooch linked for eternity with David Gower, the pair of them representing antithetical impulses in the recent history of English cricket, tied on 32 matches each as captains of their country.

England now need a revival of appetite, of enthusiasm, of originality in their approach to the game. They need an end to cronyism, to passive resistance, to a belief that newcomers to the squad need to be re-educated in technique and attitude before they are deemed fit to cope with the special demands of Test cricket. As captain, Gooch can never again provide those qualities.

Mike Gatting's failure to cope with May's big off-break represented a lapse of concentration which should remove him not simply from the running for the captaincy but from the side altogether. What, one wonders, does he have to do to draw the line under his England career? His previous record of disloyalty and misbehaviour has been followed in this series by criminal negligence in moments of extreme crisis, moments at which his experience and supposed professionalism should have been at a premium.

The weird near-silence that greeted his dismissal, the sound of 30,000 resigned sighs and the odd harrumph, should have told the TCCB that change is overdue. Lathwell, Maynard, Morris, Fordham: bring them on. Give them a leader whose best years are ahead of him and whose intellect enables him to provide them with a vision of achievement. I mean Atherton, of course, whose diligence and obduracy would not be impaired by the extra responsibility. Give him a wicketkeeper, Jack Russell, whose presence would at the very least lend them the proportions of a proper cricket team. And give them all until the end of this series, against opponents who are respectable but in no sense invincible, to sort something out.