It has been an increasingly grotesque summer. In a sequence of events played out in little more than a month, England have contrived to lose a captain, perhaps a series and definitely the plot. The second two followed inexorably from the first.
It was different in the halcyon days of July. Zimbabwe had been sent packing, South Africa dismantled in the one-day series. Team England were set fare, sailing in calm waters and on the crest of a wave of public esteem. They are now careering off course and down the plughole.
South Africa have dominated the Test series and the upshot is that England not only lack a clue about what their best squad might be for the winter tours, but also that the status of the game in the nation at large is again reduced to the level of a music-hall turn. Underneath the arches they dream their dreams away, the idea (official policy) of England being the best team in the world by 2007 being especially prominent.
All manner of questions about the state of play in the English game are cropping up. They were there before but were not being asked so pointedly. Nobody should expect answers quickly.
There is a habitual and much-loved tendency in English cricket to follow Kipling's advice by treating triumph and disaster just the same. That is to say, when England win as they did in Nottingham to level the series, they are hailed as conquering heroes and when they lose, as they did at Lord's and Headingley, they are castigated. Michael Vaughan went from King Arthur to Arthur Askey. It made us feel much better.
So, the defeat has led naturally to the condemnation of the county game; the disparagement of most professional cricketers (there being plenty of them to disparage); the usual, unhelpful observation that the leadership is mediocre; the more understandable disapproval of the selectors; the opinion that the National Academy is failing and that club cricket is irrevocably hopeless.
Lord MacLaurin, the former chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, has also entered the fray by repeating the conjecture he first came up with in these columns last year. To wit, that the counties had better reduce in numbers and sack some players sharply.
The parties for Bangladesh and Sri Lanka - two Test series will bracket two one-day series - will be named on Wednesday. There will be 16 players in the Test squad, 15 in the one-day squad and 12 full-time students at the Academy, who will be supplemented at intervals by players summoned for specialists attention, off-spinners, opening batsmen or wicketkeepers. It is beyond doubt now that the selectors' difficulties are partly of their own making. True, their discussions, as well as the team, have been ravaged by injury but they have also been marked by a lack of policy and vision. They have lived today when they should have been planning for tomorrow.
When England began the season, it was on the back of an abject winter. They had lost the Ashes resoundingly once more, and left the World Cup with tails between legs again. Since the two things that matter, truly matter, in English cricket, are winning the Ashes and the World Cup, it was time to draw a line.
Instead, they went on selecting as wicketkeeper a man of 40 who had played in six successive losing Ashes series and three losing World Cup campaigns. They defended this by saying that Alec Stewart was still the best. They could not see that this was beside the point. It was obtuse and it defined the panel's fatal weaknesses.
Then, there has been the case of Nasser Hussain. Hussain's emotional resignation from the Test captaincy has been the single most decisive and destructive act of the season. In place of a seamless transition the selectors had to throw their star batsman, Vaughan, into a leadership for which he might not be fit. Nor was he allowed to have his own team. Hussain mulled over his decision for a couple of days: it could have repercussions for years.
The 16 names for the Test tour will probably contain six batsmen, one all-rounder, three spinners, two wicketkeepers and four seamers. There may be a case for taking only three specialist seamers (James Anderson, Richard Johnson and Matthew Hoggard, much missed) with Rikki Clarke of Surrey as a second all-rounder.
They will presumably take two veteran batsmen in Hussain and Graham Thorpe (otherwise there was no point in hiring Thorpe for The Oval). Paul Collingwood is in the frame for both parties. Who could have said in May that the one-day party would look better than the Test bunch?
There was another example of short-sightedness at The Oval. The final place in the team lay between Martin Bicknell, 34, a graduate of the county system and the school of hard knocks, and Kabir Ali, 22, a graduate of the National Academy. They opted for Bicknell, a man they had diligently ignored for 10 years. It was natural to ask: is the Academy worth the money?
The short answer is that it is but that it had better watch it. A total of 30 players have attended, of whom 10 have played for England since (ignoring those who had played before going to the Academy). This is probably too many. The Academy gets its own home in Loughborough this winter. It is a specifically designed all-singing, all-dancing emporium and if English cricketers do not learn there they will not learn anywhere.
But there remains the fear that there are insufficient players of potential class out there (look at this summer). For instance, where have all the bowlers gone? Gone to be sacrificed on awful pitches, every one. The pitches at Trent Bridge and Headingley were cases in point. England should have won both games, but that still would have had nothing to do with the pitches that they encounter everywhere else.
They are the sort of pitches that county cricketers play on frequently. They are killing off spinners before they have been born. Not that there are many rising batsmen, either. But county cricket in truth is not much different now than it ever was. It never was much good.
Those who think it too soft, however, should have listened to the first-class umpire, a former England player, who was lamenting behavioural standards the other day. In one incident this season, a player waited for an umpire after close of play to argue over the decision which had sent him on his way. Unforgiveable - but with the rider that at least he cared.
There is another query nagging us all: is Vaughan as good a batsman as we thought? He had better be. Is he is as bad a captain as we fear? He had better not be. Otherwise they all may as well head for underneath the arches.
The probable tour parties
M P Vaughan (Yorkshire), M E Trescothick (Somerset), M A Butcher (Surrey), N Hussain (Essex), G P Thorpe (Surrey), P D Collingwood (Durham), A Flintoff (Lancashire), R Clarke (Surrey), C M W Read (Nottinghamshire), J N Batty (Surrey), A F Giles (Warwickshire), R D B Croft (Glamorgan), G J Batty (Worcestershire), J M Anderson (Lancashire), M J Hoggard (Yorkshire), R J Kirtley (Sussex).
M P Vaughan (Yorkshire), M E Trescothick (Somerset), V S Solanki (Worcestershire), P D Collingwood (Durham), J O Troughton (Warwickshire), A McGrath (Yorkshire), A Flintoff (Lancashire), R Clarke (Surrey), C M W Read (Nottinghamshire), G J Batty (Worcestershire), A F Giles (Warwickshire), D Gough (Yorkshire), R J Kirtley (Sussex), J M Anderson (Lancashire), M J Hoggard (Yorkshire).Reuse content