Illingworth entitled to his share of praise

TEST SERIES VERDICT: There is, justifiably, a renewed mood of optimism for England, writes Martin Johnson, Cricket Correspondent
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It is not too often that the light at the end of the tunnel turns out to be something other than an oncoming train, and we will know soon enough whether another brave new dawn is destined for the traditional lunchtime sunset.

There is, justifiably, a renewed mood of optimism, and yet England have been down this route before. Perpetually drunk on failure, into the drying out clinic, and the reformed alcoholic wanders straight into the Pig and Firkin for several stiff ones.

This time last year, the nation was intoxicated by a stunningly audacious victory over South Africa at The Oval, and six months after that, Michael Atherton was conducting a weary, round-shouldered post-mortem into another ritual winter stuffing.

However, while the England captain will very soon be making the customary pre-tour noises ("the boys are looking forward to it"..."everyone's very confident"..."of course we think we can win"...) there are sound reasons for suspecting that on this occasion they will have a genuine ring of self- belief as opposed to the recorded message tone of the Speaking Clock.

When Atherton returned from Australia, he was as puzzled as he was annoyed. England were not short on talent, but whenever their castle came under siege, they were not so much inclined to raise the drawbridge and start boiling some oil, as place a welcome mat next to the milkbottles and put the kettle on for a pot of tea.

Where England have therefore made genuine progress this summer is not so much in not losing the Test series (it will, in fact, nag away at them that they should probably have won it) as in shedding an endemic invertebracy shared only by lower forms of pond life. And in this, Atherton's own contribution extends far and above simple weight of runs.

It is also right and proper (just in case he modestly omits to do it himself) to acknowledge Raymond Illingworth's part in this newly discovered backbone. The chairman was the first of all the England captains to embrace the concept that professional cricketers embracing the Baron de Coubertin principle of sporting ethics were indeed liable to take part without actually winning anything.

Illingworth's estimation of his own fallibility might raise the odd dressing- room giggle, but it is the kind of thing which rubs off on those around him. While Lord Ted would claim to have made no errors largely because he spent long periods in dreamland, when Illingworth has criticism laid at his doorstep, he immediately files it under "not known at this address".

Quite apart from Atherton's own personal example under enemy fire, the driving force of Illingworth's personality is not to be underrated. Graeme Hick, whose Test average of 36 is not too dissimilar to his daily word output, was moved to engage the chairman in heated debate about his future, and Illingworth's blunt message was "get out there and score some bloody runs".

It was worth a good deal more than the customary "we still rate you, Graeme" type of platitude. No one needed a cattle prod more than the hermetically (or perhaps than should be hermitically) sealed Hick, and England may at last be about to reap the rewards of his talent.

This newly discovered "over my dead body" approach was also encapsulated by Illingworth junior, Richard, when he risked severe long-term injury by batting with a broken hand at Trent Bridge, and all England players will in future be judged as much by bottle as by statistics. England may be taking a doctor with them on tour this winter, but at least they no longer require a heart transplant surgeon.

However, refreshing though it is to reminisce about a series in which England climbed more ladders than they slid down snakes, when they come to reflect on why they did not win the series, the answer will probably lie in the soil.

At Edgbaston, they not only managed to land themselves with a pitch made to measure for the West Indies attack, but also compounded the error by omitting to pick Devon Malcolm. Then, when it came to backing themselves on a quick, bouncy surface at The Oval, they ordered a pitch on which Malcolm versus Brian Lara could not even have been promoted as a contest by Don King.

The new steely edge to England's cricket also took too long to arrive, and probably because the build-up to the series (largely forgotten now) was in the main conducted while the Atherton-Illingworth marriage was still confined to separate beds, and pots and pans at 10 paces.

England were therefore not as focused as they ought to have been for the first Test and Headingley was chiefly memorable for Illingworth, wrapped- up in pre-heatwave sheepskin coat, scowling from the balcony at the ineptitude of his team. Illingworth and Atherton then embarked on a second honeymoon, and by the end of the summer, were covered in lipstick.

Cynics might conclude that the key clause in this reaffirmation of the marriage vows involved Illingworth demanding a traditional service (i.e. love, honour, and obey) and Atherton saying "I do" most of the time. However, it is much more of a partnership than that, and Illingworth has at least taken away the grey area about who is accountable for England's results.

The individual successes have been Atherton, Graham Thorpe (who became the first English batsman - albeit in the first six-Test series - to make 500 runs against the West Indies) and, most of all given the shortfall in the all-rounder department, Dominic Cork. The Derbyshire player sometimes sails close to the distinction between being pumped up and over-inflated, but it is Cork's sheer aggression which makes him the cricketer he is.

On the debit side, Darren Gough's induction as the saviour of English cricket now looks a touch premature, Craig White is one of Illingworth's failures (although try getting him to admit it), and you would still have room inside a phone box for England's quality spinners.

Peter Martin has slipped back in the rankings after promising so much early on, Phillip DeFreitas is about due for another spin back through the revolving door, and this summer has done nothing to solve the Mark Ramprakash enigma. However, Ramprakash has responded with an avalanche of runs for Middlesex, and, unlike the unfortunate Alan Wells, is a certainty to get another chance.

Ramprakash, John Crawley, Nick Knight and Jason Gallian will all be discussed for the winter tour to South Africa, but there are only seven batting places available, with Atherton, Stewart, Smith, Hick and Thorpe all inked in for the first five.

However, England have at least now arrived at the situation in which all potential candidates will be scrutinised for more than pure talent. The Australians will still perceive the old enemy as soft touches, but they may no longer be able to write, as they did last time, that "England have all the never-say-die qualities of a kamikaze pilot."