Cricket World Cup: Game runs in from the Wits' End

The England inquest: 'If the victories failed to make the blood race, the defeats made it boil'
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The Independent Online
STEPHEN BRENKLEY

OBITUARIES mourning the demise of England have been delivered annually since they started losing long, long ago. The beginning of June, however, is premature for publication of the death notice even by their standards.

Normally, they hang on to some sort of existence, meaningful or not, until August at home and January on tour. To be eliminated from the seventh World Cup at the first stage with a squad specially picked to perform on home turf was a deeply embarrassing, inexcusably early expiry. Resuscitation this time will not be easy or straightforward.

England are now without a coach, David Lloyd having departed by mutual agreement before the end of his contract because he was not about to be offered a new one. They have a part-time, temporary manager, David Graveney, who has two other jobs, in one of which, chairman of selectors, he is in charge of a bunch who continue to tell a good tale while being in danger of losing the plot.

They have a captain, Alec Stewart, also with two other jobs, some or all of which he must shed if the team are to be revived. The men of many roles (and less of the "jacks of all trades, masters of none" over there, if you please) will meet this week to discuss Stewart's future. The likelihood at present is that he will cease to be wicketkeeper and, possibly, opening batsman before ceasing to be captain, but presumably only because there are slightly more fresh-faced candidates for keeper than for captain.

Perhaps above all, England have a profoundly unattractive, under-achieving side who have missed a big trick by failing to progress. They lost in the World Cup partly because they were badly prepared - nothing to do with Lloyd, more their lack of practice at the one-day stuff - but that does not mean they will be much better at the Test variety. Great efforts have been made, not least by this selection panel, to separate the two forms. In both of them it is easy to make out a case for wide sweeping change, which tends not to work at any time and almost certainly would not now, given the lack of viable options.

England have been slow to learn. They were unquestionably much less wretched than in the last World Cup, but the selectors set out their stall to name a team appropriate to the conditions. They were not holding enough trumps and their all-rounders were simply not well-rounded enough. Maybe it was a tournament for specialists after all; maybe, in England, as has been long suspected, the good Test player is also the adept one-day player.

It is the selectors' job to know. The decision to omit Nick Knight on grounds of form so close to the tournament seems no less bizarre at this distance. Nasser Hussain acquitted himself well, but before the Sri Lankan match he had never opened in a one-day international. Some planning.

Blaming individuals for the elimination does not hold up. They were all supposed to be in it together, and when it mattered they were not. Perhaps the Test team has gathered some knowledge in this regard, but Australia showed in the winter how little that might be as yet. There are worthwhile selectorial punts ahead. Chris Read, the Nottinghamshire wicketkeeper, could be profitably picked in the summer for the future, not the present. It is important to persevere with Andrew Flintoff; it is vital to discover another opening batsman, perhaps Darren Maddy, possibly Michael Vaughan, who may have matured at last.

The most significant and unenviable of the panel's jobs in the lean months ahead is to identify the talent, if it is there. At times it will be harder still to stick with it, but that is what they have to do. If it takes 20 matches to learn how to play Test cricket properly, it might require 50 in the shorter game.

For the moment it is a mess. The idea that England can go on to the next match or the next series with a clean bill of health is plainly daft. Yet the reaction following the painful collapse to India at Edgbaston was as predictable as the defeat itself. In some cases it took minutes.

The whole of the nation's cricket-loving public - not a constituency about to grow - was still smarting from the loss of the match and the place in the Super Six round of the tournament when an exercise of damage limitation began. This is not an easy task to perform when the self-immolated body is still warm, but how they tried.

England's erstwhile captain, Michael Atherton, captured the mood. Atherton owes the English game nothing as a batsman, and might, just, have broken even as a captain, but he remains seriously in the public relations red. In his new, if temporary, guise as television pundit he said that there would be a couple of days of over-reaction to the defeat, after which things would settle down.

As he fiddled the words out of his vaguely Romanesque features it was possible to imagine Lord's burning. Come to think of it, an anagram of Atherton is That Nero. Maybe defeat - and, boy, is he on close personal terms with it - has made Atherton immune to its possible consequences.

A couple of days later Tim Lamb, the chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board, made a decent stab of salvaging the World Cup in England without England by truthfully pointing out the quality remaining. Then there was Graveney, also appearing on television. He partly blamed the pay dispute between the players and the ECB for undermining the side's campaign before it started. It was difficult to tell whether he was wearing his hat as chairman, as pro tem team manager, or as chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association.

What all of them missed was that when England lost they did so forlornly. True, the wins were emphatic, but none of them contained much passion. But if the victories failed to make the blood race, the defeats made it boil. England twice folded, unable to overcome the loss to arguable decisions of key wickets.

In neither case did England recover; in neither case did they look like doing so. After their fate was sealed (unofficially described, in the misguidedly optimistic months leading up to the competition, as "the worst case scenario"), it was said that the players were hurting in the dressing- room. Frankly, it would have been helpful if they had been prepared to hurt a bit more in the middle.

"Where do we go from here?" has been the mantra chanted round the corpse of England for ages. To face New Zealand in a low-key Test series first. The appointment of a manager and a coach might seem an urgent priority, but it is Stewart's position that will be most closely examined. Hussain has been touted as his most obvious successor; Mark Ramprakash would be less obvious and less identified with the previous regime. Both might, with luck, bring a maverick touch to the hard-nosed, not always savoury, English professionalism.

English cricket is in turmoil again. It is bereft, on its latest death- bed, of many qualities, the ability to win when up against it being only one. But the overriding reflection of the past few days is that what England lack above all and the reason their supporters will not miss them in the Carnival of Cricket is what makes the game worth it: a sense of joy.

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