England fervour fuelled by failure

CRICKET '95: Advance ticket sales suggest a fruitful summer - for the TCCB anyway `It is something to be thankful for that the game in this country is in such rude health'
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The first serious sounds of leather upon willow are almost upon us, and true English cricket lovers are brushing up on half-forgotten but essential phrases for those summer pub debates. You know the sort of thing. "We were looking good until Malcolm went down with chicken pox and Stewart broke a finger..." and "Serves me right for buying tickets for the fourth day. Bloody Illingworth. Bring back Lord Ted if you ask me."

Here we are with a Test team worthy of only a marginally fatter chapter in the book of English sporting heroes than Eddie the Eagle, and the marketing men at the Test and County Cricket Board are struggling to sell enough tickets to fill the grass windbreak at the County Ground, Derby. Are they heck. They could wallpaper the Long Room with £50 notes and still not make a dent in advance ticket sales.

As it is by no means certain that spectators would turn up in such vast numbers for a winning England team, all these batting collapses and pulled hamstrings may even be part of a TCCB masterplan, and would certainly explain why its county members are so loath to change a system which more or less guarantees defeat. Maybe the Barmy Army, who got progressively more excited in Australia the worse England played, were really the TCCB cricket committee in disguise.

However, on the more likely assumption that interest in the England cricket team would be even greater if they won more than the occasional Test match (mostly after having already lost the series) it is something to be thankful for (and indeed amazed by) that the game in this country, at least at the highest level, is in such rude health.

If this indeed is an annual triumph of optimism over experience, then it is not just confined to spectators. Before the last major home series (following yet another sizeable winter stuffing) the majority pundits' view was that Australia had only a slight edge in batting, and were in big trouble with the bowling if Craig McDermott suffered one of his breakdowns. McDermott was invalided home with no Test wickets, and Australia won the series 4-1.

And yet, here were go again. Nothing but optimism. The arrival of the West Indies is not something to be viewed with trepidation, but brings forth any number of reasons why England might just win their first major Test series at home since 1985. The opposition will be knackered after their four-Test battle with Australia, their batting is ordinary with the exception of Brian Lara, and they no longer have the fast bowling armoury that once prompted Keith Fletcher to say that against the West Indies, he even watched the television highlights from behind the settee.

On the other side of the coin, England supposedly have a new and incisive focus now that the Board has decreed that Fletcher would indeed be better placed behind the furniture than on the dressing-room balcony. Raymond Illingworth is now doing two jobs, and, as was not difficult to predict when he was first appointed as chairman of selectors in 1994, it will not be long before Illy takes over as physio as well. "Niver 'ad all these injuries in my day. I'll keep t'boogers fit."

However, assuming that Raymond does leave one or two tasks to other people, such as allowing Michael Atherton to toss up, then he remains the most astute brain available (despite the odd blip such as picking Martin McCague for Australia) and his full-time presence in the dressing-room should have a positive effect. However, those players who imagine that Illingworth will soft pedal on individual criticisms as a result of seeing each other on a daily basis, do not know him very well.

England, as Atherton pointed out in his Ashes post-mortem in February, are not as short of talent as results would indicate. What they lack is that bloody-minded will to win in a high-pressure environment, which most rational people outside the county chairmen's offices would put down to too much soft domestic cricket.

Needless to say, after a winter in which the captain and virtually everyone connected to the England cricket team pointed the finger at a system in need of radical overhaul, what did we get? A new five-year deal with Benson and Hedges, and the continuation of three one-day competitions, not one of which mirrors the number of overs allocated to one-day internationals.

When it comes to getting the message quickly, there is a two-tier communications system at Lord's. All those waiting for a message from the marketing department should install a fax, while anyone awaiting a response from the cricket committee would be as well to wander down to the beach and see if anyone has sent a bottle with a note in it.

Even basics are compromised when there is the whiff of a crisp fiver in the air. A whisky firm has put up £125,000 for computerised individual awards this summer, based on points for performance, and there is a clause allowing bowlers to pick up points if they have taken no wickets but not given away too many runs. Anyone who watched Mike Gatting indulging in his usual ritual slaughter of county attacks last summer, and then bat in Australia as though he was trying to find his way out of a coal cellar in a power cut, is not in much doubt about English bowling standards, and only England could embrace the concept of awarding points for not taking wickets.

The last time the West Indies were here, four years ago, England drew the series 2-2, and the final (and winning hit) of the international summer was made by Ian Botham. On Botham's quiz show recently, Darren Gough said that he would like to become as good as Botham. He is as confident as he is talented, but he is slightly ahead of himself. If he turns out to be only half as good as Botham, England will start winning a few more Test matches.

Domestically, Warwickshire hold three of the four trophies, which around Edgbaston might have made them the Rolls-Royce of the English game, but elsewhere was interpreted as a Lada with a Lara. The West Indian will be otherwise engaged this summer, and doubtless the longest period he will be away from his mobile phone and his agent will be while he is batting against England.

Warwickshire host the first competitive match of the 1995 domestic season at Edgbaston today when they take on England A, and the usual quota of early-bird enthusiasts - possibly running into double figures - will be rummaging around for their Thermos flasks and sandwich tins after their winter hibernation.

The A side did decidedly better than their seniors during the winter, winning both the Test and one-day series in India, and evidence that the A team concept has now become a serious training ground for the real thing is the fact that the captain, Alan Wells, and his Indian counterpart both received on-field lectures from the umpires for the amount of foul language, dissent, and sledging.

This sort of antisocial behaviour may also be enacted in many households around the country, as parents attempt to fend off their children's demands for their county's replica Sunday league uniforms, which have already been altered despite the assurance two years ago that this would happen only every three years. If the Ashes took place between two teams of marketing executives, it would certainly be a closer contest.

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