England's balancing act

As a new season is ushered in with changing ground rules, Atherton prepares to be pitched into battle Derek Pringle looks ahead to a summer marked by the visit of the West Indies
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The Independent Online
ONE OF cricket's perennial problems has been a lack of willingness to look forward. So imagine the surprise upon hearing that, according to a voice from Lord's, the future shape of English cricket will be based on the clean lines of the pyramid. It seems that, with its coffers bulging to the point of embarrassment - almost £100m in sponsorship deals alone is available over the next four years - the TCCB plans to disband, swallow a few other minor bodies and re- invent itself as the all-embracing English Cricket Board.

Almost any change is welcome, and this more than most. As long as the new body can survive the traumas of streamlining, the ECB's new shape will have the country's schools at the bottom and beat an ever narrowing path of excellence upwards all the way to the England captain's door. That lies in the future. But what of the present, which starts today in low-key fashion, with the first of the Benson and Hedges zonal matches?

Amid the trumpet solos coming from the Farsley HQ of Raymond Illingworth, a significant change about to be carried out at grass roots level - literally - has been given something less than a fanfare. In a departure from previous years, the TCCB's cricket committee has revised its directive to all Test and county groundsmen, allowing them greater scope in the preparation of pitches. However, harsher penalties are in place for those who wilfully stretch the guidelines too far.

Gone is the insistence that a pitch should have an even covering of grass. Instead, as Illingworth himself hinted at during the England "A" game against Warwickshire last week, Test match pitches will now be prepared to provide a balance between bat and ball; helping seam bowlers at the start, batsmen in the middle, and spinners over the final two days.

This is a big departure from the days when bland Test surfaces were prepared with the sole intention of seeing that the match lasted well into the fourth day, thus ensuring a maximum of ticket sales and a minimum of refunds. In ignoring England's plight by not producing pitches to suit them, groundsmen danced to authority's tune. Now, it seems, pitches are to be well grassed in the middle, and bare at either end, where it is hoped they will wear more quickly and allow a spinning ball some purchase.

But woe betide any groundsman who gets it wrong. Pitches that are too green and offer too much seam movement, or break up too early in the match, will, on the sole judgement of the umpires, be marked "poor". The first black mark is not punishable. The second will be, and comes with a penalty of 10 Championship points, the third with 15 and so on, to a maximum of 25.

This places even more pressure on umpires to bring personal judgements to bear and unless a groundsman is supremely gifted and knows his loams from his limes, he is going to be ever more conservative in his ministrations with mower and heavy roller.

Apart from The Oval, a ground where England have enjoyed some success of late has been Headingley. But no sooner had England's seam bowlers found a pitch where they enjoyed rare dominion over the batsmen, than the authorities insisted it be dug up and replaced with a placid surface on which the national side have yet to win.

It is hard to imagine any other country being so witless, and the West Indies, who start their six-Test series at Yorkshire headquarters in June, having lost the equivalent match there in 1991, will be jubilant, providing Australia have not thrashed them in the interim.

Should that happen, the West Indies Board may well consider scrapping a recent sponsorship deal, the purpose of which, it seems, is to keep their Test players away from English county cricket. Anyone who saw how their non-county-trained opening batsmen struggled in Barbados glimpsed a preview of a team whose standards will quickly plummet should such a sponsorship become a success.

Despite a roasting in Australia over the winter, the England team always seem to start the season with their caps at a jauntier angle than is merited. Such optimism is often misplaced, but as Michael Atherton made plain at the end-of-tour press conference in Perth, the talent is there. It just needs to be identified early, nurtured and then kept faith with. The combination of youth and continuity is, he claimed, the only way towards constructing a successful Test team.

Illingworth's appointment to near omnipotence as England supremo will not have helped Atherton's cause and should the Lancashire batsman not be re-appointed as captain on 30 April, the likes of Martin McCague, Craig White and Joey Benjamin could reappear for England this summer as Illingworth brings his influence (he has one vote as team manager and a casting one as chairman of selectors) to bear on a pliant new captain.

This won't happen, of course, for though Illingworth's shrewdness is overstated, even he wouldn't be daft enough not to stick with Atherton for the one-dayers and the first two Tests; if only for the fact that it gives him room to manoeuvre (i.e. sack the captain and take the heat off himself) should things go drastically wrong against the West Indies.

For anyone who doubts Atherton's credentials or stomach for the job, let them be directed back to the Australian section of the press box last winter. These journalists have little notion of romance yet, to a man, they marvelled and chuckled at the sheer cussedness and unflinching stubbornness of the England captain, likening him to their beloved Allan Border when he began his captain's journey under heavy fire from all sides. For a Pom, they remarked, Atherton was a real hard bastard.

Illingworth knows this; he knows too that he is the outstanding candidate for the job, and yet he still insists - with his delays and snide propaganda - on publicly bringing him to heel. England's sporting figures have to endure more than their fair share of humiliation from public and press. They should not have to take it from colleagues too.

For his part, Atherton must also stop pointing the finger every time he doesn't get his way with selection, and pay more attention to details on the field, where some of his decisions have been off the pace. Internecine bickering is not the way to beat the West Indies. A confident team showing a united front is. England must also pick an off-spinner to combat the tourists' almost exclusively left-handed middle-order, and, if he can be accommodated, a pace bowler who will swing the ball. Glen Chapple and Mark Ilott are two who spring to mind.

It was with just such an attitude that England "A" juttingly thrust at the opposition in India. Surprisingly, they won just about everything going - including that local rarity, an lbw decision - before returning to get it right again last week by thrashing a Lara-less Warwickshire in front of the England selectors.

Last season Warwickshire won three of the four trophies. Seen largely as a team of battling journeymen, they won the Championship largely through the supreme efforts of two players, Brian Lara with the bat and Tim Munton with the ball. Neither starts the season with the county; Munton is injured, and Lara will be touring with the West Indies. It shouldn't be long before he turns his beady eye on the record books.

Without the quota of West Indians, the County Championship is wide open and any one of about 10 counties could be hoisting the winners' pennant come September. By then, not only will a lot more be known about the state of groundsmanship, but also about English cricket, including its future direction. Many questions will be asked, and the answer may lie in the soil.

Principal fixtures

27 April First County Championship match

7 May First Sunday League

matches

24 May First one-day international,

England v West Indies (Trent Bridge)

26 May Second one-day international, England v West Indies

(The Oval)

28 May Third one-day international,

England v West Indies (Lord's)

8-12 June First Test, ENGLAND V WEST INDIES (Headingley)

22-26 June Second Test, ENGLAND V WEST INDIES (Lord's)

6-10 July Third Test, ENGLAND V WEST INDIES (Edgbaston)

15 July Benson & Hedges Cup Final (Lord's)

27-31 July Fourth Test, ENGLAND V WEST INDIES (Old Trafford)

10-14 Aug Fifth Test, ENGLAND V

WEST INDIES (Trent Bridge)

24-28 Aug Sixth Test, ENGLAND V

WEST INDIES (The Oval)

2 Sept NatWest Bank Trophy final (Lord's)

14 Sept Final County Championship

matches

17 Sept Final Sunday League matches

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