England need high impact, low frequency

CRICKET: If the new Cricket Board is to have any real effect, it must be receptive to drastic changes, Derek Pringle argues
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With another summer almost at an end it is cricket troubleshooting time again. The only trouble is that, unlike A-levels, the same questions get asked of English cricket every year. For instance, are England the dunces of world cricket? If so, who is to blame, and why don't we learn from our mistakes? These are perennial inquiries and suggest that cricket's problems are probably institutionalised, being both deep-seated and structural in origin.

Cricket in this country is being run as a business selling a faulty range of products: the counties and England cricket teams. So far, the public appear happy to accept this, at least in the case of the national team, who they turn out in droves to watch in the vain hope that they might, one day, win a series against a decent side like Australia, Pakistan or the West Indies. Meanwhile, nearly every other nation either beats us or runs us close, particularly abroad, where our recent record has been lamentable.

This summer was, until Pakistan's bowlers got their tails up, fairly typical. Two comfortable Texaco series were separated by a single decisive win in the first Test against an under-prepared India. But although that early victory, on a raw pitch at Edgbaston, ought to have given the home team the momentum to win at least another Test match, England allowed an Indian team hit by defection and disarray to regroup at Lord's, where the home side were lucky to escape.

Only a toothless draw on the fallowest of Trent Bridge pitches allowed England to take the series. Still, comprehensive or not, it kept intact - until two weeks ago - England's proud boast of an unbeaten home record that has stretched back almost three years under the Atherton-Illingworth regime.

By then, as summer fields began to brown, a well-rested and well-prepared Pakistan side were here and warning bells over England's difficulties in taking the 20 wickets necessary to win Tests began to carry loud and clear.

The first Test at Lord's, played upon a very different pitch to the one they had met India on a month earlier, exposed them and Pakistan were able to declare their second innings just five wickets down.

To bolster their bowling against Pakistan, England had included the Sussex leg-spinner Ian Salisbury, whose efforts until tea on the fourth day had been fruitless. A day later his counterpart Mushtaq Ahmed had taken five second-innings wickets and England had lost the match.

It was a pattern followed two Tests later at The Oval, where the little leg-spinner's six wickets were once again central to England's disintegration on the final day.

Losing to Pakistan over, say, a five-Test series ought perhaps to be expected. After all, with Wasim, Waqar and Mushtaq to call upon, they have a far superior bowling attack. They also have batsmen who score runs quickly enough to allow them the extra time it takes to wear the ball (usually after about 35-40 overs) into a state where it can reverse swing.

However, two losses from three should have been avoided, and to lose nine and 10 wickets on the last day at Lord's and The Oval respectively did little to bolster England's repeated claims that they have become a more resilient side.

And yet if both defeats could be laid directly at the batsmen's feet, victory - almost exclusively the remit of the bowlers - was never once glimpsed, despite first bowl on a green-tinged Headingley pitch.

On good, solid pitches, the majority of modern Test matches are won either by accurate fast bowlers or top-class leg-spinners. England have neither and rarely have had, which means that the rules of engagement - a reliable line and length at an honest pace - have rarely changed, and won't until incentives like less county cricket are introduced. Dominic Cork's lack of swing is probably more to do with loss of technique through fatigue than the use of Reader balls.

Of course that particular bone of contention has been around so long it has become fossilised, presumably along with those county chairmen who keep rejecting it in favour of an old outmoded infrastructure, set in place long before the mass appeal of daytime TV soaps kept audiences captive in their own homes.

However, if the soon to be formed England Cricket Board cannot bring it upon upon themselves to provide a higher impact, lower frequency cricket they should at least reconsider the Acfield report's suggestion that the chairman of selectors be given the right to withdraw England players from county games.

We may not be able to produce an Allan Donald or a Waqar Younis at present to unleash upon opponents, but we at least owe it to the country to ensure that what we do have is fresh and spirited. This is something the current system, in which players serve two masters - county and country - fails to comprehend.

Still, the end of the Illingworth era is not entirely gloom-filled; a state of affairs with which the chairman may not entirely agree should today's sitting of the Cricket Council fail to uphold his appeal over the pounds 2,000 fine levied for bringing the game into disrepute.

On the plus side, England have in David Lloyd an invigoratingly barmy coach, who is at least prepared to give modern techniques a try. They have also discovered some useful performers in Robert Croft, Nick Knight and Alan Mullally, as well as rediscovering others such as Andy Caddick, Darren Gough, Nasser Hussain and John Crawley, the latter pair at last linking potential to performance.

The good news is that all are relatively young and, when placed alongside the more established core of Atherton, Stewart, Thorpe and Cork, provide the basis of a competent and competitive side.

However, the question of whether it can achieve its potential under the system is not one that can be answered in the veldt of Zimbabwe or the vales of New Zealand this winter. Only if England are humiliated is anything likely to be done by the new ECB. Action, which if past performances of the TCCB are anything to go by, cannot be guaranteed.


Texaco Trophy

The Oval: England 291 for 8. India 96 for 5. Match abandoned.

Headingley: India 158. England 162 for 4. England won by six wickets.

Old Trafford: India 236 for 4, England 239 for 6. England won by four wickets.

England won series 2-0.

Test Matches

Edgbaston: India 214 and 219. England 313 and 121 for 2. England won by eight wickets.

Lord's: England 344 and 278 for 9 dec. India 429. Match drawn.

Trent Bridge: India 521 and 211. England 564. Match drawn.

England won series 1-0.


Test Matches

Lord's: Pakistan 340 and 352 for 5 dec. England 285 and 243. Pakistan won by 164 runs.

Headingley: Pakistan 448 and 242 for 7 dec. England 501. Match drawn.

The Oval: England 326 and 242. Pakistan 521 for 8 dec and 48 for 1. Pakistan won by nine wickets.

England lost series 2-0.

Texaco Trophy

Old Trafford: Pakistan 225 for 5. England 226 for 5. England won by five wickets.

Edgbaston: England 292 for 8. Pakistan 185. England won by 107 runs.

Trent Bridge: England 246. Pakistan 247 for 8. Pakistan won by two wickets.

England won series 2-1.