F Scott Fitzgerald famously said that there are no second acts in American lives – which just goes to show that a remark can become celebrated without bearing much relation to the truth. America loves a comeback, whether it's Michael Jordan or John Travolta or Dick Cheney. So do we – look at Tom Jones, Michael Parkinson, even Martin Keown. As lives get longer, there is all the more room for ebb and flow.
The England cricket selectors seem to have recognised this. Nasser Hussain will take the stage at Lord's tomorrow with a troupe of comeback artists. In a 13-man squad, the four places that were in any doubt went to John Crawley, Alec Stewart, Dominic Cork and Alex Tudor, all of whom have spent time in the doghouse, the wilderness, or both. Crawley and Cork were the real surprises, landing the places that the newspapers thought had been earmarked for members of the Academy – Ian Bell and either Simon Jones or Steve Harmison. This led to Bell becoming perhaps the first 20-year-old ever to find the press pack descending to ask how he felt about not being picked for England.
Reporters don't take kindly to being misled, and someone had blundered in leading them to expect a debut for Bell when there were misgivings about his form. But bad PR is one thing and bad selection another. There were plenty of persuasive reasons to pick Crawley. He caressed his way to 156 against Sri Lanka last time they were here; he was summarily dumped after a tour of Australia that was blighted by a mugging; he has worked hard on his one obvious weakness, a frailty outside off stump, with a world-class coach, Bob Simpson; and he is a fine player of spin who could make a difference not just when Murali returns in a couple of weeks, but later in the summer against Kumble and Harbhajan Singh. The choice between Crawley and Bell ceases to be a tricky one when you ask yourself who the Sri Lankans would rather bowl at.
The same goes in the case of Cork v Jones or Harmison. Cork has a formidable record at Lord's and, in the continuing absence of Darren Gough, he is the England bowler most likely to work himself up into a lather and break a big partnership – a vital ability against a team whose average first-innings total, in their last nine Tests (all won), is 523. If, as reports suggest, Cork has stopped bowling round-arm and started swinging the ball late again, he is well worth a place in England in May. Again, Cork is the man the Sri Lankans would rather not face, bringing experience and edge to an attack that already has two young quicks in Tudor and Matthew Hoggard. And he is not exactly old: like Crawley, he is 30 – two years younger than Kylie Minogue when she began her present comeback.
Much has been made of the fact that Cork flopped in Australia last time round. Well, so did Mike Atherton, and if he had been banished as a result, England would not have achieved a rare win in Pakistan two years later. Australia doesn't loom large in English cricket thinking: it looms huge. This week, the baggy-green comparisons have been everywhere. Several correspondents have said that if Cork and Crawley were Aussies, they would have been written off by now. That may once have been true, but lately even Australian lives have had second acts. The stars of the Aussie top six this winter were the new opening pair, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer, both over 30.
All around the world, second acts are under way. Andy Flintoff, although only 24, is already unrecognisable from the flabby flailer of four years ago. Carl Hooper, a Hick-like underachiever in his first 80 Tests, has turned into Allan Border since, averaging 56 instead of 33. Waqar Younis, an old banger a year ago, is back to something approaching his fastest and best. Chris Harris, long since pigeonholed as a one-day specialist, was the only man to make a hundred runs in England's last Test, in Auckland, and a major reason why New Zealand were able to steal a point. England's most effective batsmen in the Ashes series last summer were two seasoned stand-ins, Mark Butcher and Mark Ramprakash, who, like Crawley in 1999, has been given the boot after making a big hundred in his most recent home Test.
Normally at this time of year, England hand out a debut or two. Last year it was Ian Ward and Ryan Sidebottom, the year before Chris Schofield, the year before that Aftab Habib and Chris Read. And where are they now? Ian Bell is better off biding his time, aiming for one of the new year-round contracts to be handed out in August, and taking his place in the queue, behind not just Crawley but also Owais Shah, who has gone from next cab off the rank to forgotten man without doing anything wrong. In England circles, fast-tracking can lead swiftly to side-tracking. But at least there's usually a second chance.Reuse content