James Lawton: Flower and England can offer cause for celebration even amid troubled times

Coach who has taken side to brink of world No 1 spot knows life outside the comfort zone – and proper pride in sporting principles

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It may not be so easy imagining a time less susceptible to any mood of national celebration. However, with the possibility of a miraculous victory over the world's No 2 football nation at Wembley tonight lost in the smoke that has been billowing across the capital, there may just be a case for diverting to Edgbaston this morning.

The argument, it is true, might have been more compelling if the looting and the anarchy hadn't already touched streets of Birmingham not much more than a long throw from the cricket ground where another England team seek to make official their status as the best team on the troubled planet.

But then if there is always a need, in the best and worst of times, to remember that sport can ultimately never be more than a triviality – however brilliantly distracting – there is surely nothing wrong in acknowledging a piece of work supremely well done.

That one of the principal architects happens to be England's Zimbabwean coach, Andy Flower, certainly makes any crossing of the line between the games the nation plays and the life it has been required to live these last few days seem rather less of a lurch away from an unwelcome reality.

Flower, who with England captain, Andrew Strauss, has these last few years brought to the team levels of professionalism and spirit which have carried them into the company of the football World Cup winners of 1966 and their rugby union counterparts in 2003, has, after all, walked superbly along the line which separates the demands of sport from those of real life.

He did it most memorably with his black countryman Henry Olonga during the World Cup co-hosted by Zimbabwe in 2003.

Never the closest of friends, they united in a gesture of protest against the regime of Robert Mugabe. They wore black armbands to denote the death of so many values and their explanation remains as moving, and strongly principled, as it did eight years ago.

Their statement said: "In all the circumstances we have decided that we will each wear a black armband for the duration of the World Cup match [against Namibia.] In doing so we are mourning the death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe.

"We are making a silent plea to those responsible to stop the abuse of human rights. In doing so we pray that our small action may restore sanity and dignity to our nation."

In persuading Olonga to make such a brave gesture, in recognising the strength in a young, carefree character whose passion was to bowl the cricket ball extremely quickly, Flower provided some early evidence of his ability to bring out the best in his fellow cricketers.

Some years later Olonga made a statement which surely resonates in some burnt and smouldering inner-city streets of England this morning. He declared: "I never wanted to live in a comfort zone. A lot of people in the world are victims but not all of them have a victim mentality. I never felt I was in the Zimbabwe team because I was black but on merit."

If Flower, not one of life's overflowing extroverts, could inspire such bold spirit in a young countryman, it is perhaps less surprising that he has helped to work such a sustained renovation of an England team that just 12 years ago was booed off the field for its ineptitude after a home defeat by New Zealand.

Certainly, it was significant that after England's second crushing Test victory over India, still nominally the world's No 1 team, at Trent Bridge last week Flower was the first to attack the possibility of the kind of hubris that so quickly overtook England after their breakthrough Ashes victory in 2005.

Yes, he said, the mountain top was visible enough but still had to be gained.

When he said that, you couldn't help but recall the words of Michael Vaughan, captain of England, when the Ashes were taken from the grasp of an Australian team still inhabited by some of the greatest players in their history. Vaughan came back from the triumphalism of Trafalgar Square and the Prime Minister's back garden with a sombre warning to his conquering team.

"We've had a great victory," he said, "but it won't mean much if we don't build on it. I just want this team to understand what they have achieved and how they had to fight for it. Now they have to fight on – more than anything they have to stay honest."

That became the most forlorn of hopes when the injured Vaughan was required to watch Australia sweep to an eviscerating whitewash Down Under.

Now it is hard to imagine the Flower-Strauss axis permitting such regression at the very point of a historic triumph. The mark of their team is a willingness repeatedly to reach down for the best of itself when the pressure is at its highest.

In Australia last winter, the Aussies revived themselves in Perth, exploiting favourable conditions to draw level against heavy odds. England's response was crushing.

So it has been in the first two Tests against an Indian team which, despite scandalously slight preparation for such a vital series in foreign conditions, has twice fought back to a competitive edge – and twice been overwhelmed all over again by the force of the English effort.

Against the wrenching background of the London rioting, the scrapping of England's football international with the Netherlands may well have averted the kind of humiliation imposed by a young French team in a friendly that came after shocking World Cup performances from both teams. It was the smallest mercy in the bleakest of times – and especially when set against the likelihood of fresh evidence that the national cricket team have moved so far ahead of their football cousins.

No, it is maybe not the time for fans to go running in the streets – certainly without fire protection – but then a certain measured celebration is surely permitted. Life goes on and some of the most satisfying of it, as in less dispiriting days, just happens to be occurring on a cricket field.