James Lawton: Gutless England need a Waugh-like hero who can teach them to behave like men
Saturday 26 July 2008
While England's top cricketers are agonising over whether they will risk their hides in another of their sport's meaningless, money-grubbing one-day "championships" in Pakistan in September, perhaps they will consider the possibility of playing like men before the end of their current assignment of real cricket against real opponents in the current Test series.
Not VC or GC-winning men, throwing themselves down on Taliban hand-grenades, you understand, but men who know what they are doing, what they are supposed to represent as international sportsmen rewarded in a way that most of their compatriots would regard as fabulous.
This, you have to believe, would be acclaimed by much of the nation as a wonderfully refreshing idea when the action resumes against South Africa next Wednesday at Edgbaston, a place which may have lost some of its gentility in recent years but is still, surely, some way from being classified as a war zone.
Certainly it would be a huge step forward from the demeanour of whimpering, indulged, underperforming victims of arrested adolescent development which was displayed with such a colossal lack of self-examination at Headingley when the South Africans swatted them aside with ill-concealed contempt earlier this week.
Since the glory of the Ashes win in 2005 there have been too many dismal examples of a lack of professionalism, and genuine leadership, to recount comfortably, but what happened in Leeds must in many ways have been the most dismaying example.
Let's whisk through the essentials. England were upset because on top of the dropping of their beloved team-mate Paul Collingwood, who for all his past splendours of determination was in terrible nick with the bat and fresh from his shocking collapse of decent sporting values against the Kiwis, they were not satisfied that the Australian-groomed but English-born swing bowler Darren Pattinson was worthy to join their number. And certainly not before their mates – Steve Harmison, a serial failure in recent years to deliver his best form for the national team, and Matthew Hoggard, an erstwhile hero struggling to find his old touch in the county game.
So the boys had been dislodged from their belief that they were members of some impregnable club? So what, you might ask. Just get on with it, you might say, go out and earn your money and justify your reputation.
Instead of which they of course rolled over before treating us to the most gut-wrenching of excuses from their captain, Michael Vaughan, who said that a "confused" selection had swept away the resolve of his team. Some resolve. Some team.
In all of this we can only be thankful for the attitude of Alastair Cook.
In recent months Cook's batsmanship may not have brimmed with enterprise or facility, but he has been gutsing it out in a way that would pass muster even with England's most consistently trenchant and insightful critic, Geoffrey Boycott. At the age of 23, Cook long ago established his credentials as a bona fide Test performer. He has amassed 2,382 runs (in the process becoming the youngest Englishman to pass 2,000 runs) and has an average of 42.53 which has taken him comfortably past the classic threshold of Test worthiness, 40.00. In 32 Test matches he has hit seven centuries and 12 fifties. In the two Tests against the South Africans he has hit 60, 18 and 60. He has shown a redeeming glint of steel.
Given that he has performed so doughtily on the field, his comments off it are thus surely at least doubled in value. Cook said this week: "Darren Pattinson came and bowled his heart out, taking two wickets and bowling tight. The change in players was unsettling but the defeat had nothing to do with Darren. It was because wedidn't play good cricket."
Someone still hopeful that the heart of English cricket isn't already shot to pieces should cut out the quote and pin it in every dressing room in the land. It might just serve to remind the professionals that when you get picked not just for country but any side you have a certain obligation to deliver of your best. That's why you have been separated from the light-hearted furies of the village green.
Of course, that would be just a thumbnail scrape across the problem.
What England really need is a sharp change from the currently ludicrous system of running the team.
Responsibility should rest with a team manager, who would have the selectorial powers of a Fabio Capello or, if you like, the late Sir Alf Ramsey. Of course, he would consult with his captain, but ultimate responsibility would be his. It would be his judgement, his feel for every situation, which would be on the line, and if his team performed as abjectly as England did he would have to face the questions and, perhaps, the consequences.
This would prevent the appalling excuse-making of Vaughan after the Headingley debacle, when he talked so limply about the damage of a confused selection. The choosing of Pattinson might have been wrong but it wasn't confused. What was confused was the reaction of the team. Their basic confusion lay in the vital matters of who they were and what they were supposed to do.
They were, at least allegedly, some of England's most competitive cricketers and what they had to do was give some reasonable evidence that was indeed so.
Instead they submitted to what resembled more than anything a fit of childish pique. It shamed them and the country and the game they are paid to represent. Whoever England pick today, the real solution is beyond the selectors. For that, they need to sack themselves and hand the job over to a leader of men, not a healer of the pettiest flesh wounds. Where he is to be found is, of course, the big question. My search would start in Australia and the door of someone like Steve Waugh.
Moynihan's 'British' team defies footballing traditions
It is understandable that Lord Moynihan, chairman of the British Olympic Committee, wants to beef up our competitive presence in the 2012 Games but an English football team representing Britain and managed by Sir Alex Ferguson (right), does not exactly smack you in the eye with the force of its logic.
That combination would be one inevitable consequence of the perfectly reasonable stand of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland football associations against even a one-off merging with the English body – a thin end of the wedge situation that they would have every right to believe would tempt football's ruling body, Fifa, into another attack on their sovereignty.
When such independence is granted even to vote-carry dots in Pacific atolls, three proud football nations are right to fight for their traditions and resist its compromise for the sake of still another dose of Olympic hype.
We can know where the great Denis Law stands on the issue. He played golf when England played West Germany in the final of the 1966 World Cup and developed a time-honoured ritual whenever Scotland played the Auld Enemy. It was to seek out one of his English Manchester United team-mates, kick him and say, "take that, you English bastard."
If there is any need, which is doubtful after a certain lack of enthusiasm yesterday, he would no doubt say, "Think again, Sir Alex."
Yellow jersey turning into pale imitation of past glories
There was a time when the Tour de France, which tomorrow comes sweeping into the Champs-Elysées trailing old and sadly diminished glory, had a cast of heroes who were required to proclaim their character and their heroism through every day of sport's greatest physical challenge.
How innocently they did this, is of course a matter of legitimate historical review. However, the likes of Eddy "The Cannibal" Merckx, Jacques Anquetil and Miguel Indurain did not perform in a cast in which some members were allowed to play just an act or two, or in the case of Britain's star sprinter, Mark Cavendish, four starring cameos.
Cavendish, you may remember, quit the Tour for the most impeccable of competitive reasons, a charge for Olympic gold in Beijing, but the decision not to face the Alps seemed, somehow, still another blow aimed at the integrity of a race which not so long ago had reason to call itself the greatest of them all.
Tommy Simpson's death in the Massif Central in 1967 happened because of drugs – and also because he was locked into the greatest challenge of his life. Now it seems the Tour can be parcelled up, with the yellow jersey being handed from one member of a powerful team to another. The Tour de France has always been a spider's web of intrigue and subterranean tactics and drug suspicions, but once it seemed to have a unifying factor which gave it a glory even in the face of the annual sneers from the Communist paper L'Humanité handed around the Paris cafes on the last day of the race.
The paper claimed it was a circus, fuelled by drugs, put on by peasant lads for the enjoyment of the bourgeoisie, and if they have undoubtedly been proved right in one respect, they could never say that the courage required was ever compromised. Now, if they still care to, they can.
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