Andy Flower, the England coach, spoke yesterday of Graeme Swann's bowling, of Alastair Cook's batting and of skin cancer. The last of those topics was out of Flower's orbit until it came charging in unceremoniously last week.
On the eve of the first Test match against Australia, the England coach was told by a Brisbane dermatologist that the small brown growth on his right cheek needed removing immediately. It was melanoma and it was about to get nasty. "I was surprised by being worried as much as I was but it all happened pretty quickly and it's hopefully over pretty quickly," he said after an intervention that prevented untold difficulties.
"I think it is one of those dangerous strains of cancer and they wanted to get it done straight away. It would have spread. He said we have to get you in straight away, they are the experts, you listen to them. They did checks on the chunk they got out and they got everything, but I will have to have three-monthly checks for two years."
Flower missed days two and three of the match after having the malignant growth removed under local anaesthetic. He had 50 stitches inserted into the wound. The coach was alerted to the dangers of the spot by the England team's security officer, Reg Dickason, whose home is in Queensland.
Knowing a thing or two about risk, having been virtually forced out of his home country of Zimbabwe after his black armband protest against Robert Mugabe's regime in the 2003 World Cup, this was a new kind of danger for Flower. He was brought up in a country where exposure to sun – "always out in the sun every day on the cricket field" – was natural, as it is in Australia where melanoma is a continual concern.
"Yes, I was a bit shaken, but it is out of our control so you just hand over to the experts to do their business," he said. "I think this was more worrying for my family than me, to be honest, because they are miles away and would prefer to be here."
He put his good fortune at Dickason's intervention into characteristic perspective, too. "I always feel lucky, every morning," he said. "Seriously, I do. We are really lucky to be involved in cricket and get paid for it. I have always felt that way and we have so much to appreciate."
Without the coach around, England were in some trouble in the first Test, though Andrew Strauss, the captain, had suggested, mischievously, that the mood had been more light-hearted in his absence. "He told me he'd said that," said Flower. "I thought 'I've heard Strauss's speeches and he doesn't crack too many funnies'. No, it was fine, they were engrossed in the game, it [his absence] was not a huge issue. The management team is a well-organised bunch and the players are very self-sufficient – once they are into a game there is very little that we have to do anyway."
Flower was doubtless relieved to be able to talk about cricket again so soon and he could do so against a backdrop of an apparently successful procedure as well as a good draw in Brisbane with record-breaking performances. There were shortcomings, however, and superficially Swann was one of them. Having come into the match with so many hopes bestowed on him, he took two wickets in 51 overs. Not as bad, of course, as the entire Australian team who took one in 152 second-innings overs but a warning that the spinner might not have it all his own way.
"He didn't get a lot of help from the pitch and hopefully in Adelaide he will get a lot more, but I think some of the expectation heaped on him has been a little over the top," said Flower. "He has had a great couple of years in international cricket and he is a very fine bowler and a great competitor, but we should not expect him to take five-wicket hauls all the time.
"He went for about three runs per over and got two wickets in their first innings and that is no disaster at all, but I think people were viewing it as such. I think we should keep our expectations a little lower than they have been recently. He is a strong character. He might seem light-hearted and jovial all the time, but underneath there is a very strong competitor and an experienced campaigner, so I think he can handle whatever is thrown at him."
This was a pertinent point about Swann. But it is not for the off-spinner that Brisbane will be remembered, it is for Cook's unbeaten 235, for Jonathan Trott's 135 not out and for Andrew Strauss's 110 – the first time since 1924 that the top three in England's order had each made a century. England made 517 for 1. However that is phrased it is still a scorecard of mountainous achievement, not least because England trailed by 221 on first innings.
"It was a brilliant fightback after being that far behind," said Flower. "It was a dangerous position to be in so I thought the batsmen showed real composure, skill and courage. You need courage to bat like that and discipline yourself as the three of them did."
For England's batting coach, Graham Gooch, Cook's innings was particularly special. Gooch has had a profound influence on his career with Essex and England, and has not only helped to refashion his technique and method but imparted secrets of how international cricket should be played.
"I was very pleased for Cookie and very proud of him but I think the man most proud of him other than his close family was Graham Gooch," said Flower. "They are good friends and have worked very closely over the years, and when one of his Essex players performs for his country as well as Cook did, it was a very proud moment for him."
Flower declined to join in the new Australian sport of rubbishing their cricket team but he knows that England made several statements. He said: "I'm not sure what is happening in their camp, we make judgments on the opposition but it is not our job to talk about them publicly – but that was a long time out there in the middle and a lot of wear and tear put into them." All of Australia knows it and fears what awaits.Reuse content