One-dayer after one-dayer, and morale is sent back down the bottomless pit

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The Independent Online

Among the more choleric of reactions to our midsummer outbreak of pitch invasions has been the suggestion of Lord MacLaurin, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, that we should bring in the "snarling dogs" to guard the boundaries. Surely, this is not practical. Cricket writers have enough to do curling their lips and barking at the England team without having to prowl the perimeters as well. In any case, there's enough slavering going on in the media. With headlines like "You Maniacs" howling from the tabloids last week, it seems that the rabid response unit is already on full alert.

Not that we should take these incidents lightly. When a steward gets badly injured and a Test team captain feels obliged to take his team off the field, cricket has a undeniable problem, but I doubt if holding a competition for the best over- reaction is going to help.

They were all at it. Tim Lamb, the ECB chief executive, called for a policy of zero tolerance, forgetting that it is already in operation. We've been tolerating plenty of zeros from the England batsmen throughout the one-day series.

Flippancy may not be welcome at this time but it might help to bring a touch of perspective to an extraordinary couple of months during which English cricket appears to have been pursuing a crash course in the art of self-destruction. If you stand well back from the chaos, forget the reasons and excuses for a moment and just concentrate on the facts, you have to conclude that what has befallen England since they returned tanned and victorious from Sri Lanka at the end of March could only have been constructed from a homemade nightmare kit.

What should have been crowding our minds since then is the growing pleasure of anticipation that traditionally prefaces an Ashes summer. The players could have enjoyed a deserved rest and started the season with their counties, thus nourishing the emaciated attendance figures at that neglected level and allowing the game's bedrock supporters the opportunity to appreciate their local heroes at close range.

The confidence brought back from a winter on the subcontinent, where England completed the commendable record of four Test series won and one drawn out of five, could have been gently burnished in the reassuring settings of the country grounds and the players should be facing the First Test against Australia in 11 days' time refreshed and eager.

The reality is somewhat different, and now it would take an exceptionally brave heart not to be dreading it. And why? Because two years ago a deal was done with Sky to cram a triangular one-day series into the early summer. Australia were already coming here, so Pakistan, who we had visited at the end of last year, were invited over to make up the trio. Two full Tests against Pakistan were slipped in to help justify their trip.

The damage caused is inestimable. We won the first Test but at the expense of an injury to captain Nasser Hussain. We lost the second in an horrendous final-day defeat that brought back all the demons the team had thought they'd slain. Then followed the slow and remorseless torture of the one-dayers, which England approached with a trepidation that was totally justified. Not all of their main Test heroes were involved, but enough to send morale back down the bottomless pit from whence it had taken so long to climb.

Then came the invasions. These, presumably, would have happened whenever Pakistan played here in a one-day series, such were the contributing social conditions. But they happened and have deepened the gloom of a game already besieged by the implications of Sir Paul Condon's corruption report and the farcically lingering allegations about Alec Stewart.

This freak amalgam of calamities could easily be put down to the cruelty of fate, but there must be some culpability to be lain at the feet of England's leaders. Was it economic necessity that led them to create the monster that this one-day series became, or was it greed? There's hardly a game that doesn't risk falling victim to the same deadly sin, but perhaps the others are better equipped to deal with the consequences of cramming too many money-gathering duties into the calendar.

The ECB must bitterly regret setting up a tournament that has destroyed the position of relative strength and optimism that England were in at the start of spring. Apart from the fact that at the moment we aren't very good at it, I wonder why we are so keen to take part in so many one-day games, anyhow. They are, after all, cricket's bet noire.

A question of sports minister

Richard Caborn's sports quiz blunders have not cast the new minister for sport in a kindly light, and he must have gathered by now that Kate Hoey has left behind a number of media admirers who will relish any error he makes. As a regular quiz flop myself, I am less worried about his knowledge of the current sporting scene than his ability to knock some sense into those who require such a service. Since many are to be found in Whitehall, the job calls for some hard out-of-sight battling, even if it is at the expense of getting Brownie points from more public activity among the minor sports.

His task, and I trust he sees it thus, is to get the Government to deliver on all those long-promised projects that have foundered for lack of drive. He claims to be keen on restoring importance to school sport and on using sport to energise and enthuse the inner-city young. All the pious ambitions in that direction have been paraded around the block several times, but it is up to him to produce some progress.

He has started to dynamite the blockages in Sport England's administration, but the real key to his success will be to persuade the Treasury to unlock the vaults in which billions of Lottery cash are being withheld from doing great service to the arts and sport. It is an oft-repeated plea that is echoed persistently to no effect by one or two newspaper voices. I care not how the minister got his job or who he replaced. He deserves to be judged on results and on whether he going to be the first to have the courage to tackle that scandal and bring sport its share.

Apart from the many stagnant projects, next year's Commonwealth Games in Manchester needs bailing out and the foundations of a national football stadium need to be dug quickly. His predecessor is said to have been martyred by her refusal to kowtow to the football authorities, and I agreed with most of her stances on the subject. But that doesn't mean to say that our national sport should suffer because it is top-heavy with the bloated and the self-important.

It is still the people's game and has a great importance among an exceedingly large proportion of the population who have just taken delivery of our Wimbledon Championships survival kit, also known as next season's football fixtures, with which we can while away these long summer evenings.

Where the ale is ailing

Ascot-lovers on Friday were shocked by the news that traces of cocaine had been found in some of the racecourse lavatories, including the Ladies in the Royal Enclosure, and one man had been arrested for possession.

I'm glad, at least, that the cokeheads were catered for. The beer drinkers certainly weren't. Unless you're a devotee of a particular Australian lager that tastes like a sample from a sickly kangaroo, there was little chance of a decent drop of beer. Swamping the place with the Aussie stuff might have been a ploy to drive the thirsty to buy champagne at a starting price of £40 a bottle for an average brand, but it wasn't appreciated by the ordinary punters who make up the bulk of the crowd.

The strictest British pomp and traditions are demanded at the meeting, so why can't they serve a thoroughbred beer?