Tim de Lisle: Old England must support emergence of youth

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The Independent Online

All three teams in this NatWest one-day series have been criticised for being too old. The Pakistan Cricket Board took flak for giving the captaincy to Waqar Younis, who admits to being 31, and for persevering with Wasim Akram, who turned 35 last week. Australia's selectors have been accused of un-Australian activity after assembling their oldest Ashes touring party for half a century, with an average age of ­ gasp ­ 30 and a few months. England, meanwhile, appointed a 38-year-old as acting captain and picked a whole team's worth of thirtysomethings: until the late call-up of Owais Shah, the baby of their squad was Ben Hollioake, a man old enough to have appeared in a home Ashes series in the last century.

The way Shah and Hollioake batted against Australia on Sunday ­ all innocent insouciance ­ prompted the thought that England should dump the old guard and go all-out for youth. An enterprising writer on the BBC website even argued that England should give up on the 2003 World Cup, pick a squad now for 2007, and allow them to spend the next six years perfecting their slower balls, underarm throws and dabs to third man. The captain would be Marcus Trescothick, the wicketkeeper James Foster, and the wild card Kevin Pietersen, the Nottinghamshire all-rounder, who is South African and would thus have to spend four of the six years qualifying for England.

It's certainly an attractive idea. Sven Goran Eriksson has shown how refreshing it can be to find that your national team is full of youthful promise. But the trend in cricket is rather the other way. Australia could have turned to youth in 1999 when Mark Taylor retired, but they chose to replace him with Steve Waugh, who was only six months younger and had even more miles on the clock. They could have pensioned off Mark Waugh last year when he was out of form and under fire. But they didn't, and the upshot was that the team got better. The Waughs are now 35 and showing signs of middle-age spread, but both played a key part in Sunday's nail-biting victory (the show's not over till the fat gentleman swings the ball over mid-wicket).

When Australia won the World Cup under Steve Waugh in 1999, one of their most effective players was Tom Moody, then aged 33. When Pakistan won in 1992, they were dug out of a terrible hole in the final by their captain, Imran Khan (aged 39), and senior pro, Javed Miandad (34). Their opponents, England, were led by Graham Gooch (38) and inspired by Ian Botham (36). The idea that one-day cricket is a young man's game turns out to be somewhat arguable.

Central contracts make a difference here, as in so many areas. Australian cricketers used to start thinking about retirement as soon as they cleared the 30th birthday cards off the mantelpiece, largely for financial or family reasons. Now the money is so good that players don't stop until they have to, and baby can come too: Steve Waugh's family are spending the summer here.

The central contract system has rejuvenated the England team, without making it any younger. Alec Stewart is better able to shoulder his multiple burden. Mike Atherton can rest his painful back. Several players in their early thirties have arrived, belatedly by other countries' standards, at the peak of their careers: Andrew Caddick at 32, Graham Thorpe and Craig White at 31, Darren Gough at 30. When the World Cup comes around early in 2003, only Caddick will be the wrong side of 34 ­ which is still four years younger than Courtney Walsh was when he celebrated his last wicket. The only member of the present England set-up who looks like being too old by then is Stewart, and he is such a fitness freak that he cannot be written off yet.

The danger is not that England will be too old: it is that they will be no good. They did well at Bristol on Sunday, but the circumstances may have flattered the batsmen. A small playing field is a level playing field, because even a mis-hit can go for four or six. In a boundary-fest, one-day know-how counts for less than usual, and a good eye for more. Oh yes, and Michael Bevan, the world's best one-day batsman, was being rested.

Putting Stewart in charge hasn't helped England's cause. It shouldn't be held against him that he reportedly wanted Mark Ramprakash called up ahead of Shah. "Ramps" is 31, the same age as White, and the old objection about the number of chances he has had hardly applies to one-day internationals, in which he has played precisely 13 in 10 years. But on the field, Stewart has struggled to show the flexibility the one-day game demands. On Sunday he was reduced to leaden strokelessness by Mark Waugh's innocuous offspin, whereas Shah, as soon as he came in, coolly improvised a sweep from outside off stump. And yesterday Pakistan's batsmen were allowed to help themselves to umpteen runs to third man because Stewart stuck to some prehistoric game plan which states that you don't have a slip after the first 15 overs. As for leading by example, Stewart did it last summer, with that glorious purple patch, but statisticians of the future will wonder why on earth England's one-day caps record is held by a man who averaged only 32 despite usually having the luxury of opening the batting.

The odd thing is that Duncan Fletcher has made less impact on the one-day team than the Test team, even though he himself played one-dayers and not Tests. It may be that the game has changed too much since his day ­ circa 1983 ­ and that he has appreciated this less because he has allowed some ways to set in.

If England are not bold enough to go back to the days of split captaincy, with a specialist like Adam Hollioake running the one-day team, they should at least add a one-day expert to their brains trust, such as Dermot Reeve or John Bracewell. And next time Nasser Hussain gets hurt, give the captaincy to someone who might be able to do it in the World Cup, like Nick Knight.

Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Online