Time to unleash Waugh on English cricketing disease

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The one in mind is Steve Waugh, who, when he retired as captain of most of the Australian team which crushed England at Lord's in the first Test, left in place a value system which is as brilliantly competitive as it is unique, certainly in contemporary cricket and with very few rivals in the rest of world sport.

England are currently coached by Duncan Fletcher, a tough old pro from Zimbabwe and he has done it well to a certain point. Unfortunately, as we have seen yet again, it is a point still several light years away from the Australians.

The last time the idea of seeking help from Down Under surfaced there were cries of shock and disdain. You wouldn't want an Australian, our great foe, to take over England. It would be an admission of defeat. Yes, it would be that but with the admission, surely there comes an inevitable question: what exactly was the gutless ineptitude displayed by England at Lord's on Sunday afternoon?

All summer we had been told that a string of victories over the likes of New Zealand and South Africa and Bangladesh, had brought England to the point of parity with Australia. Result: in slightly more than three days, defeat by 239 runs. It was an ultimately shambling defeat, like so many that went before in the 18 years since an Ashes series has been won, and it posed a question that goes a lot deeper than mere talent and technique.

The question is very basic indeed: do English cricketers have the mental strength and character to properly compete with the Australian tradition? Are they locked into an endless cycle of big talk and small performance when the stakes are at their highest, and if so what can be done about it?

An Australian solution is extreme and fraught with difficulty. Would a Waugh ever be prepared to shape up the Poms? It's probably a long shot but apart from an enticing financial offer, it could also be said to him that he would be working to save one of the old cornerstones of Australian sport... a legitimate Ashes challenge from the English. As things are going, that is an ever more distant memory.

What would a Waugh do that Fletcher cannot? He would come in with an utterly open mind and a clear eye for the kind of cricketers he has known all his life, cricketers of bite and devil and innate self-confidence, cricketers groomed in brutal competition and then, after they have been identified, elected to an élite company of players.

On his victorious Ashes tour four years ago, Waugh was reluctant to diagnose the English cricket disease. He said it was a job for Englishmen, but speaking very generally there was certainly a case for picking out the more outstanding players at an earlier age and then giving them both a proper cricket education and a little faith.

Last year there was an English cricket debate that last weekend sprang back to life at Lord's and reminded you that it had involved an Australian, Rod Marsh, the head of the English cricket academy. He argued strongly that the national team should invest in the wicketkeeping talent of Nottinghamshire's Chris Read. He was, in the opinion of a man totally equipped to know, the best keeper around. But Marsh's point was rejected. Geraint Jones was the superior batsman; not an Adam Gilchrist or a Ian Healy or an Alan Knott, you understand, but someone who could knock up a few in the lower middle order. Well, that worked well enough against the second rank of international cricket.

On Sunday, with the weight of a much needed performance on his shoulders, he played a shot that would have been considered hapless on a village green. Earlier, his keeping had been several rungs below what was expected, though, fortunately, some embarrassing dropped catches involved Australian tail-enders and did not cost the 70 runs that were yielded when Kevin Pietersen put down Michael Clarke.

Marginal details in a Test disaster, you might say, but if you have a bowling attack that has shown outstanding potential and some real achievement, do you nurture it with the best wicketkeeper available or a so-so gloveman who also happens to be a so-so batsman?

Also, is it easy to imagine that the arts and the wiles of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne would be put at risk by less than the best possible wicketkeeper? Rod Marsh didn't think so, and said so angrily. It was an Australian view intolerant of mediocrity in any aspect of a Test team.

The much broader issue is whether English cricket, under its present command, is any nearer to breaking the pattern of defeat when faced with the highest quality of opposition. At Lord's, in the moist evening, it was impossible to be optimistic. So you thought of what it would take to give English cricket genuine backbone and a new set of priorities. Inevitably, you thought of someone like Steve Waugh.