The Last Word: England must tear up cook book and find better recipe

The only way is not Essex as tottering management and coaching structures need dismantling

In affectionate remembrance of English cricket, which has expired in Australia after a short illness, badly borne, the 82-page England and Wales Cricket Board cook book will be ritually incinerated on a barbie on Bondi Beach. The Ashes will be encased in a beer bottle, and thrown out to sea.

Burning another wooden bail would do scant justice to the incompetence, ignorance and sheer ignobility of a tour which has redefined failure. An army supposed to march on a stomach stuffed with mung-bean curry and piri-piri breaded tofu has long since surrendered. Its generals have been exposed as donkeys leading sheep, yet they control the court martials.

As so often, truth has become a casualty of war. English cricket is tainted by a culture of spin and sophistry. Attempts at news management have become less subtle as Alastair Cook’s teams have discovered more inventive and humiliating ways to lose in all forms of the game.

Common decency, and concern at the plight of a good man, suppressed more searching questions about management’s duty of care when Jonathan Trott succumbed to a stress-related condition at the start of a challenge he was obviously in no condition to undertake.

Graeme Swann’s brazen attempts at twisting logic, in presenting his retirement midway through the Test series as self-sacrifice rather than the worst type of betrayal, set the tone for England’s Star Wars, in which Andy Flower, as Darth Vader, and Kevin Pietersen, as Princess Leia, are typecast. 

The cumulative effect of complacency, denial and paranoia was felt most keenly in the episodic disintegration of the international careers of the fast bowlers Steven Finn and Boyd Rankin.

The ECB, like all sporting bodies, attempt to distort debate by developing their own “news” channels, which have the objectivity of a North Korean propaganda film. Finn’s premature return from Australia was confirmed on an in-house website and YouTube channel, on which he dismissed media coverage of his problems as “uninformed”.

The desire to provide a diversion by machine-gunning the messenger missed several important points, not least the fact that Ashley Giles, head coach of England’s one-day squads, had declared him “unpickable”. Finn was protected from independent scrutiny, which would have also focused on the role of the bowling coach, David Saker.

Similarly, Rankin’s transparent lack of fitness casts doubt on the competence of England’s conditioning staff. His honesty in admitting to a back spasm the night before his disastrous Test debut compromised ECB officials who, on the first morning of the match, denied there were any injury concerns about him.

The ECB have been exposed as dysfunctional, in the great traditions of British sport. For someone so fond of a flattering photo-opportunity in victory, Giles Clarke, a flagrantly autocratic chairman, has adopted a revealingly subterranean profile in defeat. Yet, at a broader level, Clarke remains disturbingly influential. He is one of the driving forces behind a plan to restructure the ICC, the game’s global governing body, by ceding power to the English, Australian and Indian boards.

Should this initiative be sanctioned at a meeting in Dubai on 28 and 29 January, the Big Three will have effective financial control of the game. They will be freed from the chore of reciprocal Test matches against smaller nations, whose heritage is secondary to their commercial viability.

What sort of shape the England team will be in to greet this false dawn, depends largely on Paul Downton, the new manager of England Cricket, who has overall responsibility for the Ashes inquest. The over-reliance on the Essex axis of Flower, Cook and batting coach Graham Gooch has led to direct comparisons with England’s shambolic Rugby World Cup campaign of 2011.

Then, manager Martin Johnson and his principal coaches, Graham Rowntree and John Wells, were deemed to be too closely aligned to a similar powerbase, Leicester. Cook and Co haven’t been tossing dwarves, but they have thrown in the towel. With the greatest respect to the height-challenged community, that’s worse.

Bernie nearing his final lap in F1

In any other sport, with any other powerbroker, speculation would border on the hysterical. It would be impossible to conduct business as usual. Yet Bernie Ecclestone remains in control of Formula One, despite his indictment on bribery charges in Germany.

He admits to paying Gerhard Gribkowsky, a jailed banker, £27.5 million, but vehemently denies his actions were corrupt.

His departure from the board of Formula One’s holding company, in preparation for his trial in April, was a self-confessed charade. His influence is unique and unchallenged. Those he has enriched through the aggrandisement of grand prix racing have a vested interest in preserving the status quo.

Under Ecclestone, the sport has become soulless but spectacularly successful. It trades profitably on outdated perceptions of glamour. It is brilliantly marketed and responsive to geopolitical opportunity.

Yet it must change, regardless of the outcome of four interconnected court cases in which Ecclestone is involved. He is the last maverick, the ultimate entrepreneur, but at 83 cannot last forever.

Soon, his enemies will emerge after decades undercover and appoint a corporate clone to protect the share price.

Fat of the land

More than a third of children leaving primary school are obese or overweight. Sport at grassroots level is in terminal decline. Facilities are being closed because of funding cuts. Inspire a generation? The Olympic legacy involves betraying a generation and sleepwalking towards social disaster. Shameful, unforgivable.

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