Night at end of tunnel

Fall-out from Faisalabad: Another spectacular failure by England means it is time for another inquiry into state of game; Stephen Brenkley studies the history of English cricket's grand obsession
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AT THE end of last summer it was all so different. A drawn Test series against West Indies and victory in the one-day series represented a significant advance by England. If it was not quite a bright new dawn neither was it a dark and stormy night any longer.

Six months later and the night has returned. It is not only dark and stormy but it is accompanied by a hurricane as well. In little more than two weeks it could blow away the manager and chairman of selectors, Ray Illingworth, not to mention the captain, Michael Atherton, soon afterwards.

Illingworth finds himself in precisely the same position as so many of his recent predecessors - Peter May and Ted Dexter to name but two - though he has probably talked a better game. He came to the job full of promise and promises and yet two years on, as he became the first man to pick an England team that failed to reach the World Cup semi-finals, it is difficult to recognise any progress. Still, these are familiar straits.

Only three years ago, for instance, England returned from a tour of India and Sri Lanka having been resoundingly defeated in both places. They lost all three Tests in India and en route home acted as punchbags for Sri Lanka in the solitary Test and two one-day internationals. Since then, it was overwhelmingly tempting to muse during the Sri Lankan batting display in Faisalabad yesterday, England have remained steadfastly second rate.

There will be an inquest, following many others over the years, but beyond the replacement of Illingworth - the 18 counties must submit their nominations for chairman of selectors by 20 March - it is far from certain that much will happen. A good delaying tactic is to set up a commission of inquiry, for cricket in England has not often been played without somebody investigating its state.

Indeed, last week the TCCB announced that it had set up a working party under David Acfield to "review all aspects relating to the administration, selection and management of England teams at home and abroad". After yesterday's events, there will be a lot more for them to get their teeth into, but there is no guarantee that their efforts will lead to positive action.

There were four reports of one kind or another in the 20 years up to 1970. The last and perhaps the best of these was the Clark Report in the mid-Sixties and the chairmanship of the highly respected David Clark, the former Kent amateur and long-standing MCC administrator. This addressed many of the potential shortcomings in the domestic game and suggested the directions it might take, for example, with regard to the Championship structure.

Clark's findings and suggestions took up 13 pages of the 1968 Wisden. Almost 30 years later the finery of the words is not to be doubted, though little action was taken. More recently, one of the suggestions of the Murray Report - another inquiry looking at the structure of the game - recommended among other things that the much scorned Sunday League should be extended from 40 overs per innings to 50.

This was accepted (and as limited-over internationals now last 50 overs in most parts of the world it seemed fairly sensible) with the idea that the experiment should last three seasons. After one it was dropped, which at least was action of a kind.

Late last year it seemed that all English cricket was about to be brought under the control of a new authority, the English Cricket Board, to be responsible for the game at all levels - the Test and County Cricket Board has simply run first-class cricket. This at last would address the roots of the malaise that manifests itself at the top of English cricket. But the ECB was not established in November; instead, a working party was set up.

The decline and inaction has, not surprisingly, begun to affect those who follow cricket rather than those who simply administrate it. A fortnight ago the National Cricket Membership Scheme sent out 5,000 questionnaires. It embraced such topics as whether there should be a two-division Championship and the amount of one-day cricket played in a season.

The MCMS is still in the embryonic stages of its development but would eventually like a seat on the ECB. This would be a case of rebels joining establishment and you can already hear the derisive laughter from Lord's.

One of the prime movers in the scheme, Richard Hill, also editor of Cricket Lore magazine, said: "We are not a pressure group because we have no pressure, but this is being done in the interests of the game and a better England side. It's not knee-jerk."

Test cricket in England is still apparently booming despite the team's results and the MCC is introducing a loyalty system for ticket ballots at Lord's, so great has been demand. And this at a point when the graph of England Test progress defines the decline. Giving one point for a Test win and one for a Test loss since the Second World War, they are still 19 points to the good but they have shed 31 points from an all time high of 50 only 13 years ago. Although it was only one-day stuff in Faisalabad yesterday the line descended a little more.