James Lawton: Symonds saga shows why England trail Ponting's men in pursuit of victory
Saturday 06 June 2009
There was a degree of sadness in Australian captain Ricky Ponting's eyes when he announced, effectively, the end of the international career of Andrew Symonds, poor benighted "Symmo", but it did not begin to match the exasperation lurking in his voice.
Ponting was a bit of a larrikin in his youth, and a fiend of a gambler – "Punter", Shane Warne christened him – but that was before he was put in charge of the Australian winning machine and realised that the old ways would no longer do.
One of the critics of Ponting, and the rest of the "team leadership group" who decided that their erratic team-mate had posted the "gone drinking" sign once too often, was the fine batsman Dean Jones, who played 52 Tests for Australia.
He said that Symmo's offence was minor. He had merely sidled off for a celebratory can or two after his favourite rugby league team, Queensland, had given New South Wales a bit of a thumping. "Imagine," said Jones, "Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson having to report their every movement to team management in the old days?"
The problem of course is that the old days disappeared quite some time ago. The new days demand a level of professionalism more commensurate with the vast rewards that Symonds, for example, has recently been picking up as a star of the Indian Premier League.
Modern cricketers have to attend to such matters as discipline in a way never required of Keith Miller, whose perspective on the game was always conditioned by the experience of having a Messerschmitt attached to his tail in World War II dogfights, or Denis Compton, about whom it was once reported that he showed up at Lord's while still in his dinner jacket. The foregoing is true, at least, if you don't happen to be a member of the current England squad.
This inclusion is inescapable, certainly, if you trace a form line through Symonds' banishment from the Twenty20 circus for, apparently, relatively mild offences against the team's disciplinary code and the official reaction to some of England hero Andrew Flintoff's indiscretions.
Despite being discovered drunk in charge of a pedalo in the Caribbean at 4am in the wake of a World Cup defeat by New Zealand two years ago, Flintoff was not only spared team exile – he was demoted from the vice-captaincy and banned from one epic collision with Canada – but also received fiercely sympathetic support when his captain Michael Vaughan a few months later was bold enough to suggest that Flintoff had delivered some quite serious disruption to the World Cup effort.
At the time, the coach Duncan Fletcher, who had suffered quite severely from Flintoff's casual, and sometimes socially over-boisterous, approach to the captaincy in the catastrophic Ashes defeat in Australia a year earlier, certainly didn't conceal his anger when the pedalo affair erupted in St Lucia.
The coach said: "Andrew Flintoff has been given warnings about his conduct and disciplined for previous incidents of this nature. In the light of this and due to the serious nature of the incident in which he was involved in the hotel it is necessary for him to be disciplined."
At around the same time five other members of the England squad, James Anderson, Liam Plunkett, Jon Lewis, Ian Bell and Paul Nixon were all reprimanded for dallying in a nightclub after that New Zealand defeat.
The point is that Symonds – potentially Australia's most able performer in the Twenty20 pyjama game World Cup which opened yesterday – has been summarily dismissed, partly by his team-mates, while Flintoff was allowed to escape the Ashes debacle in Australia without public censure from any quarter. Indeed, his recent announcement that after all his injury problems he would be fit for the resumption of Ashes action next month – has been generally greeted as something close to deliverance.
The reason for this is understandable enough. Four years ago in England Flintoff was a hero of superb stature when the Australians were forced to surrender the Ashes. Yet the following year England, under Flintoff's leadership and having been thrashed by Pakistan, were abject in their inability to make a serious stab at defending the prize.
Privately, the Australians could scarcely believe the decline in the fight and the psychology of the England team. There was bewilderment when Steve Harmison's first delivery in the opening Test at the Gabba finished up at second slip – and later the Australian mystification was increased when their feisty opener Justin Langer heard England's experienced Ashley Giles tell a press conference how much pressure had built up on the team bus heading for the ground. Langer's eyes narrowed and he said later, "Pressure? That's what we play Test cricket for – to lap up the pressure."
There was an echo of such conviction this week when Ponting announced the dismissal of Symonds.
We were reminded of the way the Aussies of the modern age so ruthlessly clear away any obstacles to the possibility of winning. So we couldn't but imagine what might have happened if a leading England player had been similarly cavalier about the demands of team discipline, as the heroic Flintoff was so spectacularly aboard his pedalo in the Caribbean.
It was certainly hard to think that he would have been told to go home. Almost as difficult, in fact, as believing that England have anything approaching a prayer when the serious cricket starts in a few weeks' time.
Brown should ask Spurs how a spoonful of Sugar went down
Now it is a peerage for Sir Alan Sugar and the challenge of leading the nation's drive for "enterprise", a decision by the Prime Minister which we have to doubt he ran by Gerry Francis, the former England captain who served as one of Sugar's seven Tottenham Hotspur managers in nine years.
After a promising start at White Hart Lane, when the club finished seventh, Francis suggested that a little reseeding of the team, or, put another way, investment "enterprise" might put the club back where it used to be in the top flight.
Francis was told that he should buy small and sell big, a policy which the owner had noted worked wonders at Wimbledon FC. Francis, naturally, was less than overwhelmed, a reaction he remembered with some bitter mirth when Wimbledon relocated in Milton Keynes.
Some believe that the genesis of Sugar's gruesome TV career was when he brandished the Tottenham shirt of Jürgen Klinsmann before the nation and swore that it was so contemptible he wouldn't even use it to clean his car.
This pretty little performance was generated by the great German international's decision to use an opt-out clause in his contract.
As a further example of the new flag-bearer of British prescience in the enterprise department, he swore that foreign footballers would be a disaster for the English game. Indeed, he lumped all the foreign players into the category of "Carlos Kick a ball".
Later, when asked to review his brief, unhappy life as a football owner, the putative Lord declared that it was a "waste of his life". It was not entirely unprofitable, though, his shares going for more than £50m.
Desperate times perhaps, and desperate remedies, but in this particular matter the Prime Minister had best not anticipate too eagerly cries of "Nice one, Gordon".
At least not down The Lane.
Are Platini's shrill warnings starting to make sense?
We are constantly told that the leaders of world and European football are eaten up with envy by the recession-proofed might of the largely foreign-owned Premier League. However, it might just be Fifa and Uefa presidents Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini are afflicted by something other than the green-eyed monster.
This, anyway, is a thought not so easy to suppress with the news that Liverpool – still the most successful club in the history of the English game – are teetering on the verge of no longer being a going concern.
The conclusion does not seem so hysterical when you consider the most recent loss by their holding company of £43m, the increasing difficulty in servicing a debt of £350m – interest payments amounted to £36.5m – and the fact that the new stadium so vital to the club's future might for all practical purposes be located on Jupiter.
Nor is the concern eased by the fact that, after several years of serious hawking across the desert wastes, the American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett are still as far as away as ever from finding a serious bidder.
Green-eyed? Or should that really read cold-eyed? Certainly, there is a chill in the figures.
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