ENGLAND'S CAUSES FOR CONCERN; CRICKET

While the country's rugby union team continues to evoke national pride, its cricketers and footballers are still subject to endless speculation. After a topsy-turvy weekend, Independent writers test the temperature of our national games Martin Johnson says the problem lies with an antiquated system, and not the players
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There were two things at Headingley that were perfectly foul. The weather we can expect to get better. As for England's cricket team, any similar prognosis is only likely to come from the interior of a padded cell at a home for the bewildered.

England are rarely anything other than a reflection of this summer's weather - the occasional bright patch, otherwise black clouds everywhere. If into every life a little rain must fall, England attract the kind of annual downpour which would have prompted Noah to pack an extra umbrella.

If winning becomes a habit then so does losing, in which case England have long since departed from the heavily dependent category into official junkies. They are, on odd days, and in odd matches, the genuine article. Mostly, however, they are a useless article.

Someone suggested, in the immediate aftermath of Headingley, that a competition be held to find the nation's worst team and that England's cricketers should be matched against Wales's rugby players. Wales would probably win the Test match, but, in the light of England's predilection for playing people out of position, they would probably lose the rugby game by picking Devon Malcolm at stand-off.

The most deflating aspect of England making their traditional start to a Test series was not so much the profligate batting which left them with a familiarly inadequate first-innings total, nor the spray-gun bowling which allowed the West Indies to get off to such a flier before their own feeble late order could be exposed. It was in the way it all ended with Carl Hooper and Brian Lara butchering England's attack on a pitch which should have made a target of 126 something to shed a certain amount of perspiration over.

When Tony Greig remarked 20-odd years ago that the West Indies had a tendency to grovel when things were not going their way, it was the insensitive nature of the phraseology that he got badly wrong rather than the sentiment. The West Indians are more fragile than most when their confidence is low, and what England have done, at a stroke, is to repair their self-belief.

When England lost the opening Texaco Trophy game their captain, Mike Atherton, gently rebuked the media for writing the opposition off after their Test defeat by Australia. In point of fact, all the media was doing was to adjudge this as England's best chance for years to beat the West Indies, and with five games to go, it is still not out of reach. It will be, however, desperately hard now that the psychological swingometer has rotated through 180 degrees.

What is more worrying still is that while neither Atherton nor Raymond Illingworth are infallible, England clearly have the best men in the key jobs. However, they can only be as good as the personnel at their disposal. You would not, for instance, have expected Lester Piggott to win the Derby on an animal bred for service on Skegness beach.

There was a bit of nit-picking over individual selection and job definition for this match, but there was no nationwide hoot of derision. By and large, England's defeats are masterminded by their best 11 players. So why, when Illingworth talks about the "fine dividing line between winning and losing", do England so unerringly alight upon the latter.

It is, pure and simple, the system. The domestic competition is neither competitive nor structured towards a national pyramid, and the net result - almost always - is that the moment England's most talented players come under pressure, there is a chemical reaction similar to pouring salt on to a slug. An Australian journalist once memorably described England's cricketers as having "all the never-say-die qualities of a kamikaze pilot".

Unless and until the game is geared towards an England production line, instead of a series of second-rate competitions propped up by charity hand-outs and involving inadequate practitioners motivated mostly by the antiquated system of allowing them tax-free raffles after 10 years, it will ever be thus. We might weep for England on the field of cricket, but we should never be surprised by them.

Robin Smith was not a hopeless selection, although John Crawley might have been a more logical choice to partner the ever more redoubtable Atherton, and having Alec Stewart keep wicket allowed for six batsmen and five bowlers. As Illingworth pointed out, with Darren Gough making the traditional English fast bowler's visit to the physio's couch, they would have been in an even deeper pickle with only four bowlers. There was even some kind of logic in preferring Devon Malcolm to Angus Fraser. But Malcolm will always be what he is - a potential match winner, but with as much potential to win a match for the opposition as for his own side. Problems, problems. Nothing but problems.

Atherton and Illingworth will be trying to solve them again at this weekend's selection meeting for Lord's, but miracle cures are only really expected by those newspapers who portray you either as a hero or a turnip. On current form, expect Raymond's silvery-grey dome to be turned into a root vegetable sometime around mid-series.

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