Perhaps it is because Lord’s is a place where people wear ties and like stripes on their blazers that everyone has been tiptoeing around the scandal of the past four days.
When the Test team arrived here, the spirit of the new England was alive and well, nourished by the knowledge that their bold philosophy really could translate to the most uncompromising cricketing challenge of them all. And then Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson were asked to go out and bowl on a pudding.
The wise people say the pitch was not a means of neutering the 90mph Mitchell Johnson express. It was about rain for two days before the second Ashes Test, they say. But the motives don’t matter. Engineering some bounce, movement and a balance between bat and ball is not too much to ask and the scandal resides in the way England – the team who are 10mph shorter on top pace and require that lateral movement – were punctured at the moment of optimum potential in this Ashes summer. The catastrophic manner of their unravelling this afternoon as Australia turned the screw makes no material difference to that point. They were hoisted by their own petard.
All the momentum generated by what we witnessed in Cardiff was drained away by a pitch so benign that the very best of Broad and Anderson – and that very best was very, very good last Thursday and Friday – could not prevent Johnson being given the massive liberation of a total of 566 runs to bowl at. The dynamics of the Test match could have been very different had that not been the case.
It would be a dangerous misconception to portray the moribund nature of the track as part of an inherently English conservatism, because in the background of the game within these shores there is a vibrancy which has found its embodiment in the exhilarating kind of cricket the team produce. Our junior coaches are encouraged to embrace idiosyncrasies in young batters and develop individualism, rather than coach the life out of them.
“It’s player-centred, not about lecturing, and in some ways that makes it harder to coach,” Welsh coach Rick Walton tells me, back at work in Pembrokeshire schools this week, having been presented with an outstanding contribution to coaching award by Glamorgan’s chief executive, Hugh Morris, during the Cardiff Test.
The modernity is written through the ECB’s coaching materials, too. The unexpected first voice on the latest ECB “Wings to Fly” coaching DVD last year was Kevin Pietersen, urging coaches to stop teaching the talent out of young players by forcing them to take a particular stance or position. A good proportion of the film was taken up by the thoughts of a baseball coach, discussing movement and hitting.
The spirit of the new England has taken hold from shore to shore.
At Poynton Cricket Club, in Cheshire, hundreds of aspiring Joe Roots were wielding their bats at an under-nines competition in which each pair of batters has 12 balls to make their mark in the six-overs-a-side format. My brother Pete, a level two coach whose side were competing there, has told me what an impact England’s new-found freedom of expression has had on his players in the past few months. It’s a promising start. Retaining them beyond the age of 16 is the challenge, he says.
The young players of the Wycombe House Cricket Club, based at Osterley, west London, reflected the enthusiasm, too, as they prepared to file into Lord’s. The “favourite players” they reeled off – Steve Smith and Alastair Cook as well as the ubiquitous Root and Jos Buttler – suggested that they were beginning to acquire a taste for the nuance of Test cricket, too. All told, enough to feel that rumours of Test cricket’s death in this country are exaggerated.
Walton agrees, though he feels the need to grab the attention of the young at moments like this. “Retraining the 13- to 16-year-olds is the biggest challenge facing cricket,” he says. Coaches like him are up against it with so much for cricket to compete with, and sports like skateboarding and freerunning are crowding on the landscape in his part of the world. It is against this pursuit of new hearts and minds that the serving up of a pudding pitch should be viewed.
The question of how a five-day Test match can retain its relevance and compete for those hearts was dealt with memorably in Sky’s debate on the subject on Saturday morning. It was a discussion which left you more impressed with the quiet, understated intelligence of Michael Holding than ever, but also more convinced than ever that two six-team Test cricket leagues, with promotion and relegation between them every three years, would create the context and relevance which the game’s longer form needs.
The need to remove the politics which has allowed the three dominant countries, England, Australia and India, to hijack Test cricket was also touched on. (Ireland should certainly feature among the two new international sides required for those two leagues of six.)
But the more emphatically argued and fundamental point of the debate was the need for a proper contest between bat and ball, and fines for those who do not provide them. “The pitches in this country have to improve and I don’t think for one minute that England have asked for these kinds of wickets,” Matt Prior argued in this week’s Independent on Sunday.
The familiar Australian to whom we owe the idea which would put an end to surfaces like the one we have seen across the last four days did not contribute to Saturday’s discussion. Forget the toss of a coin, Ricky Ponting said. Simply let the visiting team look at the pitch on every occasion and decide what they want to do.
It seems a staggeringly simple and obvious revolution for Test cricket; just the incentive required to ensure that every groundsman creates the equitable contest that a nation of young prospective cricketers wants to see in the weeks ahead, when they tune in to the Ashes.
The second Test might be lost, honours even and Australian tails up, but it is a time to display some fearlessness, because these visitors are not the only ones who like a strip of grass with some life in it.
The summer is young. It can still take us to great heights. There will be consequences if England take the life out of these contests before they have even begun.Reuse content