Cricket: Unwelcome words from lord of hosts

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The Independent Online
IT WAS not an opportune time for Lord MacLaurin to announce his opposition to foreigners playing in county cricket. For one thing, the place is crawling with foreign cricketers at the moment and very welcome they ought to be made. The World Cup is off to a bright and promising start and if our visitors can't feel at home on the game's mother earth, and while being gently lashed by its mother rain, we are falling well short of our duty as hosts.

The noble lord was, we can be sure, not meaning to be rude or inhospitable but it might have been wiser to have kept his opinions to himself until after the World Cup and they'd all gone home, apart that is from those who are staying to help the counties ensure that the rest of the season is not an anticlimax.

It is a pity because MacLaurin had been having a good knock as chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board and his recently published biography Tiger by the Tail (Macmillan, pounds 20) reveals some brave attempts to send a blast or two of fresh thought through the game. The book's sub-title is "From Tesco to Test Cricket" and reminds us that he made his name and reputation by building up the colossally successful supermarket chain. This doesn't help us to understand his insular views on county cricket.

Tesco is hardly a monument to traditional English food retailing and if that seems a churlish observation it at least serves to emphasise that there is nothing wrong with adopting methods that have proved successful elsewhere. If you learn them at first hand, so much the better.

Obviously, there is a limit beyond which the import of foreign influence may cause problems but cricket seems to be a long way short of that limit. The counties themselves appear content and they recently blocked an attempt to ban overseas players altogether. MacLaurin believes such a ban would improve the lot of home-grown youngsters trying to make their way in the game. In a BBC Radio Five Live interview on Wednesday he foresaw a day when English cricket would be foreigner free. He feels that our county scene is like a finishing school for them. South Africans are a classic example, he said. They come over here for two or three years and suddenly become superstars.

It was ironic that on the day when his views were reported in the press, New Zealand scored a surprise victory over Australia at Cardiff and the Kiwi hero was the 31-year-old Roger Twose, who was born in Devon and played for Warwickshire before emigrating to New Zealand four years ago. Overlooked by England, he is now back as a one-day star. In New Zealand, Twose has developed in a manner that hadn't proved possible in his own country. Whatever experience foreign cricketers gain over here, it seems that the magical ingredient is inserted back in their own countries. Rather than banish them, English cricket should use the imports in the search for the formula.

Whatever motive we have for continuing to employ them, the more immediate contribution they make to the value of county cricket is dangerous to overlook. They add considerably to an interest that is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain - I can assure you, for instance, that Glamorgan fans are looking forward to the arrival of Jacques Kallis after the World Cup - and the game's future depends on a strong county structure.

And, far from blocking the progress of our youngsters, the presence of top players from abroad must be providing first-hand evidence of the standards that much be reached. If the ECB are serious about improvement they should be actively seeking more ways to absorb the lessons to be learned from other countries. Over the years, England have benefited from too many players who have changed nationality in order to wear the three lions suddenly to decide to seek an ethnic purity.

The irony is that cricket has less of a problem in this respect than other sports. English football is packed with foreign players and whereas misgivings are frequently expressed, no one can argue with the strong appeal of the game at the moment. Young footballers cannot help but be inspired by the skill and application that foreigners bring to British pitches.

Does anyone think that if they were all sent home the standard of the England side would show any appreciable rise in the foreseeable future? More likely, there would be a slackening of interest which would eventually be damaging to the game. The influx of foreign stars into rugby union cannot be said to have affected the quality of the home international teams. There may be much amiss politically with the club scene and the imports may well have distorted finances at club level but there is nothing wrong with the standard of rugby and given the continuance of common sense we can look forward to next season producing a great deal of extra excitement both in Europe and domestically at club level.

In rugby league the invasion concerns not only players but coaches. So much so that English coaches have been complaining about the jobs being handed to Australians, the latest being the relatively unknown Dean Lance at Leeds. There is no doubt, however, that Australians imbue their teams with a more rigorous work ethic. If it helps to reduce the often embarrassing gap between the British and Australian games, the bias will be worth pursuing.

The principal point, surely, is that British sport generally is operating on a much more urgent desire to entertain. Standards are being raised season after season and more than we care to admit is due to the example and influence brought from outside. It is a trend that would be easy, but perilous to reverse.

DRAGGING a mountain of nostalgia behind them, the Lions heroes of the invincible 22-match tour of South Africa in 1974 have been celebrating the 25th anniversary of their triumph with a series of dinners around the capitals. Led by legendary skipper Willie John McBride, they were in Edinburgh on Monday, Dublin on Tuesday, Cardiff on Thursday and London on Friday with the proceeds going to the Wooden Spoon rugby charity.

There has been a forgivable amount of lamp-swinging at these events, plus the odd controversial note. Inevitably, comparisons were made between the 1974 Lions and those of Martin Johnson who won the Test series against the Springboks two years ago. At the Cardiff dinner, JPR Williams said that South Africans he'd spoken to didn't rate the '97 Lions as highly, and that only Keith Wood, Lawrence Dallaglio and Scott Gibbs would have have earned selection 23 years earlier.

The dinner tour was entitled "Recall of 99" which commemorated the infamous rallying call of '74. The South Africans had a reputation for rough play, and referees a reputation for ignoring it, to which previous Lions teams had proved vulnerable. McBride's men swore a one-for-all, all-for-one pact in which the cry "99" would lead to everyone pitching in against the assailants. The giant No 8 of the time, Mervyn Davies, told the dining audiences: "Our reputation went before us. Referees knew that if they didn't sort things out, we would. Opponents knew it, too, so the aura built up around the 99 call."

There is some haziness over how often the call was sounded. Irish flanker Stewart McKinney said: "The 99 was heard only twice on the whole tour and, to tell the truth, I never heard it at all. I was already fighting when someone shouted it."

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