James Lawton: England ills caused by quick-fix quackery
Thursday 04 August 2005
Collingwood, who was sent home yesterday, has been around for what seems like ever. He has been boxed in that forlorn category of one-day specialist, which is another way of describing a superior trundler, an artisan whose collective parts have never, at least in the eyes of the selectors, stacked up in the shape of an authentic Test player.
Yet in competitive terms Collingwood is plainly the salt of the competitive earth. In his brief exposure to the Test stage, in Sri Lanka, he played a not insignificant part in the series, at one point sternly resisting the potentially rampant Muttiah Muralitharan. This achievement may have flickered in the selectorial memory at the sight of Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss playing Shane Warne in the first Test at Lord's with the panic of indecision blazing in their eyes.
A more likely - or maybe we should say too likely - reason for his call-up to the squad was a run of centuries in county cricket, on good wickets and against bowling somewhat less biting than that of Warne, Glenn McGrathand Brett Lee. Also helping him, no doubt, was the histrionic reaction of Ashley Giles to the criticism that followed inevitably his insipid performance at Lord's. Now it seems that the Birmingham weather may have created conditions to favour the retention of Giles, a possibility that earlier this week he appeared to be talking himself out of quite spectacularly.
However, there was a certain rough logic in having Collingwood with the Test team at a time when they are threatened with another dissection by the Australians and, with one or two exceptions, notably the most recent recruit, Kevin Pietersen, are reminding some of the way Frank Bruno entered his second fight with Tyson. One observer noted that the British hero crossed himself 17 times on the way to the ring.
Collingwood is a tough bird and an honest heart. When one of those former Test players who have turned themselves into cricket commentators, and who so enrage Giles - an oddity in itself in that he is already a full-blown columnist of recently major projection - pointed out, publicly, a technical flaw in his batting, Collingwood didn't rail against the impudence. He didn't say it was conduct unbecoming an old pro. He accepted the advice with some humility and got down to some serious work. Hence, perhaps, the recent spurt of centuries.
Given all that happened at Lord's, and his own tremendously steadfast approach to his cricket, no one was in position to turn his nose up at Collingwood's elevation. His battling qualities are self-evident and if some were concerned that at this ultimate level of competition he might have been found wanting in terms of talent, it is just another example of a failure to invest faithfully in those who have been marked down as sure-fire Test material. Robert Key was supposed to be one of those, but he has been nowhere in the shuffling of resources that has followed the rise of Pietersen, who looks to be temperamentally the pick of the England team despite his fluffed catches at Lord's, and the miserably orchestrated departure of Graham Thorpe.
The former Aussie captain, Steve Waugh, another of those great players turned critic who fill Giles with such angst, was saying the other day that England need a lot more courage and self-belief, and demonstrably he is right. He has also said that the English cricket disease is fundamentally about a failure to identify outstanding talent early enough for proper cultivation.
Warne may be the ultimate example of a sports maverick, a character who follows his own eccentric music, but he is also superb evidence of what happens when a youth of remarkable talent is taken hold of and nurtured in the right professional environment.
We haven't the time, or maybe the stomach, to list all those English hopefuls who have been trumpeted and then discarded after a few failures, but now 18 years into a failure to win an Ashes series, we are certainly confronted with the consequences. Ian Bell, the latest young messiah, is already under intense pressure for his place after one failure. The call-up of Collingwood, let's be honest, was, despite his run in county cricket - which long ago was dismissed as an inadequate testing ground for potential to play on the big international stage - an act of considerable desperation.
This is not to disparage Collingwood for a second. He is an entirely admirable figure, someone who works slavishly for the betterment that might have come with an appearance against the most powerful team in world cricket.
However, it is idle not to believe that the Australians, whose Machiavellian coach, John Buchanan, wages psychological warfare against England like a tenpin bowler who never wearies of making a strike, will not have some penetrating theories about this latest volte-face in English selection.
Over two years England have had some outstanding results. They talked themselves, and at least some witnesses, into the belief that they had put together an authentic challenge to the Australians. At Lord's, after some initial promise, this optimism dissolved quite shockingly. And where did it leave England? Back at that old place where a settled team - and competitive psychology - are things to be admired, and envied, in the supreme opposition provided by the Australians.
Now that Collingwood is out - and with Michael Vaughan's injury less serious than first feared and the pitch offering something to Giles, who has now been silent for all of 48 hours, it was always the likely development - there is no hardship in acknowledging the guts that have taken him so far. Even in his latest exile he should be an inspiration, as well as a rebuke, to more talented players.
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