Host of blunders that have led to England demise

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The Independent Online
WHEN ENGLAND do well at cricket, I get the odd call from BBC Radio Newcastle or Norwich, asking for a comment. When they do badly, the phone goes bananas. On Monday ITN, Sky News and various bits of BBC TV came on the line. Yesterday, one of my colleagues became probably the first member of staff in the long and distinguished history of Wisden to be interviewed on The Big Breakfast while sitting on a loo seat.

All the interviewers asked the same questions. Why are England so bad? What can be done about it? Who should go on the winter tour? Here are some more collected answers than I managed to give on air.

Why are England so bad? In general because we have the worst weather in the cricket world, the most football and the least sporty culture. Australia and South Africa, the two top cricket countries, are both sports mad, with cricket getting maybe half the attention. Britain is football mad, and cricket only makes much noise when England lose. Nike, the all- powerful sportswear brand, is endorsed in Australia by Shane Warne, in South Africa by Shaun Pollock, and in Britain by Ronaldo.

However, all these things were also the case last summer, when, with a little help from their friend Javed Akhtar, England beat South Africa. Why have England been especially bad this year? Because the selectors saddled Alec Stewart with a ridiculous burden for the World Cup, because the ECB failed to deal smoothly with a pay dispute and because the England Management Advisory Committee was so ignorant of the contemporary game that it thought the team could go through a series without a coach. Then there were the injuries. Darren Gough, England's talisman as well as their spearhead, missed all four Tests; Alex Tudor, their only young achiever, missed three; Mike Atherton, who has always eaten New Zealand bowlers for breakfast, missed two; Nasser Hussain, who had instantly stamped his authority and intelligence on the team, missed a Test and a half.

Oh, and there's another reason which every tabloid has predictably ignored. England lost because New Zealand played well. Their bowlers performed to their full potential and the whole team fought like Aussies, possibly because they had the wit to hire a coach from New South Wales. England fought well in the field but their batting was more brittle than ever. The four batsmen who were fully fit - Stewart, Mark Butcher, Graham Thorpe and Mark Ramprakash - were all short of form and fluency.

What can be done? Well, David Graveney could resign. He's a decent man, and it would be the decent thing. The most telling statistic of the past few days was the one spotted by Stephen Brenkley of the Independent on Sunday - that Ed Giddins and Darren Maddy were the 13th and 14th players to be given Test debuts by Graveney, and not one of the other 12 was in the squad with them (though Tudor would have been if fit). England's problem is not that they don't bring in new players - they bring in more than any other country. The problem is that they don't bring them ON. You cannot pick a player on potential - as they did with Ben Hollioake, Andy Flintoff and Chris Read - and then drop him when he doesn't instantly deliver. Hussain gets this point. If Graveney still doesn't, then he must go.

But knowing EMAC, we wouldn't get anyone better in his place. And Graveney did have the vision to appoint Hussain and to let him bring back Andy Caddick, without whom this series might well have been the 4-0 whitewash that Sir Richard Hadlee predicted.

What is needed above all is a total overhaul of the county system. Yesterday Derek Pringle called it bloated, inefficient, unfulfilling and fairly pointless. The only word you could possibly argue with there was "fairly". The majority of the counties are centres of mediocrity and the pitches they prepare are a disgrace.

And so to the tour party. The ritual cry has gone up for a total clear- out. That would make a 5-0 defeat, such as West Indies suffered in South Africa last winter, a near certainty. Since the county system is rotten, nine out of 10 England batsmen fail in their first few Tests. Hussain is right again, youth must be blended with experience.

All the selectors need is a few simple rules. You must pick your best opening pair. That's Atherton and Stewart (not keeping wicket). The team must field well, so you need Ramprakash and Nick Knight. You must never again have more than one rabbit in the team, so Phil Tufnell, with some regrets, must be dumped in favour of Graeme Swann, and only one of Alan Mullally and Giddins can be allowed on the plane. If the selectors cannot bear to be without Mullally's steadiness, they should recall Angus Fraser, who took 18 wickets in his last two Tests against South Africa.

Tim de Lisle's first XI: Atherton, Stewart, Hussain, Ramprakash, Flintoff, Knight, Swann, Tudor, Read (wkt), Caddick, Gough. Also on the tour: Butcher, Maddy, Fraser, Headley.

l Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly.