Of the red carpet and the trumpet fanfare there was no sign when Samit Patel was recalled to international cricket yesterday. The poster fat boy of the English game was back in the limited-overs squads after three years but the reluctance and the caution were palpable and universal.
Were Patel thinking of celebrating his inclusion for the forthcoming Twenty20 and one-day international matches against Sri Lanka with a bottle of pop and a bar of chocolate, until recently his fast-moving consumer goods of choice, he would soon have been deterred. The dietary and fitness warnings which have been part of his career since 2009 were merely reiterated in less admonitory tones.
From the chairman of selectors, Geoff Miller, came this: "Samit Patel has taken significant steps in the right direction and he has more hard work ahead in order to make further progress." And from Andy Flower, the England coach, this: "He has made strides forward with his fitness and he has put in some hard work over the winter which was good to see. However, he has a long way to go physically.
"We don't want triathletes out there because they don't make good cricketers, we want people who can deliver their skills under pressure and when the team need it most."
If Patel is not worried overmuch by what they think, and his dilatory approach to reformation suggests he isn't, he has not heard anything yet. His Nottinghamshire and (now) England colleague, Graeme Swann, was extremely tentative last week. "It has been up to him basically since his much-publicised problems with the fridge," said Swann.
"I think he's going in the right direction, I certainly don't think he's there yet judging on whatever results there are. That's all Andy Flower ever asks because Samit went in the wrong direction for too long. It should frustrate him, it frustrates me, you just think 'what an idiot'." This came, do not forget, from the card in the England camp and Patel should be in no doubt that he has a dressing room to convince yet.
"It's not to do with just being overweight, it's the reluctance to buy into the discipline of it that was his downfall," said Swann. "If you can't even be bothered to do that, then how are you going to buy into all the team principles and how are you going to be trusted by the rest of the team who are doing the same thing? Maybe that's what he has realised. I don't know, I haven't spoken to him enough to really know what goes on."
These were hardly ringing endorsements of a new, streamlined Patel, simply an acknowledgement that he had tried a bit after endless beseechment and now needed to try a hell of a lot more. Patel played 11 one-dayers for England in 2008 and while he uprooted no trees it was obvious that there was enough there in the batting and left-arm spin bowling departments to work on.
He was left out the following year not on form grounds but because his fitness was unsatisfactory. This was greeted with due seriousness – international cricket is a serious business and must be treated by its participants with due seriousness – but there were definite sniggers at the back.
Overnight, the chubby, though not corpulent, Patel became a cause célèbre. With each one-day squad that was announced there was usually an addendum that Patel had not been considered because he had not responded sufficiently to either requests or blandishments to improve his fitness.
There were two obvious shortcomings. He was clearly overweight in professional sporting terms and this had an impact on his fitness to perform at the top level. Considering what cricketers used to be like it was slightly misleading.
Colin Milburn, a swashbuckling opening bat who played nine Tests for England in the Sixties, never went to the crease at under 18 stones and that was not a chest protector he was wearing. When the 42-year-old Colin Cowdrey was called into England's beleaguered side in Australia in 1974 to repel the fearsome pace of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, only the cricket flannels confirmed that he was not a bon vivant stockbroker taking a wrong turning on his way to the office after a late all-English breakfast.
But that was then and this is now. It has become generally accepted that cricketers need to be fit, or fitter. Patel has not been alone in eschewing the delights of extra-curricular physical activity, preferring to let their cricket do the talking. Ian Blackwell, at Durham, is another left-arm spinner and harder hitting batsman who is at least as talented as Patel, yet his international career came to a halt after 34 one-dayers when he might easily have played 100 more than that. He has never been willing to make the compromise and appears to have no regrets.
Patel seems to have listened, though it was difficult not to suspect yesterday that England have been prepared to make compromises as well. Flower has always insisted that they were not asking for much, but a modicum of progress. Flower said: "What he has done so far is make himself eligible for selection and he's been selected but to stay there he needs to keep improving and above all produce in the middle."
For most of the period since he was omitted, it seems that Patel was actually less fit than the previous time he was tested.
Nottinghamshire, his county, while hardly dismissing England, left it up to him. Stories have regularly emerged that Patel was too fond of his mum's Asian cooking and that she was fond of treating him to it. It just so happens, of course, that England are in a little difficulty.
With Mike Yardy hors de combat because of depression and on the verge of one-day international retirement and with James Tredwell having been seen to be slightly short of the necessary at international standard there were not many places to turn for a second spinner who could bat. In fact, there was only one.
At 26, Patel should be approaching cricketing maturity. Recalled initially to the Lions team three weeks ago for a match against the Sri Lankans he made 119. He was not out of place in England's team three years ago, though his last five matches against India in India showed that he was not the finished article either. He has come to seem a better player, as so often happens, for being out of the team.
Swann's scepticism was intertwined with recognition. "We will never know whether Samit has made the decision to really sort it out or not until he's given the chance," he said. "But a lot of people thought that about me for a time when I fell out with the coach, I ended up blacklisted for a while.
"There are certain parallels, it's just that mine were of a different nature. He has got talent, it's whether he has discovered or decided he has what it takes to have an international career or not. That's the point."Reuse content