System requires surgery
Monday 11 March 1996
There appears to be no spirit of adventure left in English cricket, either on or off the field. The one-sided thrashing by Sri Lanka proved that; the bowling shredded by a daring left-hander, and the batting collapsing under a weight of expectation.
Instead of fizzing with invention and enthusiasm like their opponents, England's sickly pallor - partly the product of too much cricket too hastily played - betrayed their lack of appetite for a fight. It will only be rekindled once wholesale changes are made to the staple diet.
It is easy and convenient to blame the men under the spotlight - Michael Atherton and Raymond Illingworth - for the dismal performances this winter. After all they are the most exposed and the most easily accountable parts of a structure that is still essentially run by self-interested committees of the first-class county clubs.
But, whoever we choose to blame, the bald facts are that England have only four Test-class batsmen - Atherton, Hick, Thorpe and Smith; and one quality Test match bowler - Dominic Cork. And he has wonky knees.
Captaining a side with so few quality players is a difficult enough job when they are all in form, let alone when they are not as England's have been most of the winter, and one that is clearly having a cumulative effect on its skipper.
Speaking in Rawalpindi two weeks ago, he claimed he would not resign. After this weekend in Faisalabad he was not so sure, indicating that he would be going away in order to reflect upon his winter.
Mind you, the longer his and the team's winter of malcontent has gone on, the more sombre and tetchy his moods have become. And one of Atherton's failings is his inability to bite his lip when emotionally wound up.
However, despite the occasional PR gaffe, such as the "buffoon" incident, and the negative body language on the field when things are going badly, he is the only obvious candidate for the job.
Illingworth later acknowledged this with a modicum of regret when he said: "There is no one knocking the door down as opening batsman or captain. Which is a pity really, as I think Mike would quite like to bat in the middle order. He's a good player of spin and it might take the pressure off him a bit."
The only danger is that after three years without a Test series win, the pressure is very much on. And without any obvious way of relieving it, Atherton may just feel it is a responsibility he no longer wants.
Who could blame him, saddled as he is with the products of a system that is run by and for the relics of a bygone era?
Illingworth claimed yesterday that there was not enough bowling variety in the county game compared with when pitches were left uncovered, and that there are too many batsman averaging over 60 as a result. Be that as it may, covered pitches are here to stay, and that means standards can only be raised by increasing the level of club and county competition.
To do that, a move towards less cricket of a higher intensity is required before any fine tuning can be considered. The most obvious way is to have two divisions in the County Championship, though until the voting power of the counties is removed - withholding their annual Test match hand- outs should do the trick - it will remain as much a pie in the sky as a consistently successful England team.
Another solution would be to divide the 18 counties up into five regions, each made up of three or four county sides. Only the elite would be selected, paid by a central body, to play each of the other regions twice over four days in a "Super Championship". A one-day league would also be played, with the top two sides contesting a showpiece final at Lord's.
Once the Test matches started, the England players could choose whether to play for their regions. After all, Australian and West Indian players do not play for their domestic sides during a home Test series, and show few ill effects as a result.
The counties, who would have their own Championship of 17 matches as well as two one-day competitions, would then act as nurseries for developing talent. That way they would be able to keep their identity as well as their infrastructure intact, and provide a high standard of interesting cricket, whilst promoting youth.
Inevitably, the archaic benefit system would have to be phased out, with worthwhile pension schemes put in its place. In any case benefits, despite their altruistic intentions, have inadvertently held the game back, being incentives for players to overstay their usefulness as much as for giving the county clubs a reason to underpay them.
However, any structural changes will have to be accompanied by a heightened desire to compete. This is something England seem to lack compared with other countries, who seem more focused and aggressive as a result.
There is no doubt this is a nation of knockers, forever trying to cut down those who arrogantly pop their heads above the parapet of good taste. Even so, there is not enough striving in cricket. There has to be keen competition all the way through a player's development. At present that is simply not happening.
The fact that losing a one-day match, albeit a World Cup quarter-final to a side playing at its all-time best, has provoked such a huge reaction, may seem excessive to many, particularly those, who, like Illingworth, believe Test cricket is still the ultimate game.
The truth is that despite the smug attitude that Test matches can still be sold out, England's cricket is stagnating behind the coffers-full apathy at Lord's. Unless sweeping changes are made, the only victory England will be able to claim in a few years' time will be Pyhrric as England lose the first Test to the Netherlands in front of a full house at Lord's.
Bob Woolmer on England's plight, main section, page 15
(England won toss)
R A Smith run out (Jayasuriya) 25
(78 min, 41 balls, 3 fours)
*M A Atherton c Kaluwitharana b Vaas 22
(32 min, 27 balls, 2 fours)
G A Hick c Ranatunga b Muralitharan 8
(28 min, 21 balls)
G P Thorpe b Dharmasena 14
(39 min, 31 balls, 1 four)
P A J DeFreitas lbw b Jayasuriya 67
(89 min, 64 balls, 5 fours, 2 sixes)
A J Stewart b Muralitharan 17
(39 min, 38 balls)
R C Russell b Dharmasena 9
(18 min, 17 balls)
D A Reeve b Jayasuriya 35
(37 min, 34 balls, 5 fours)
D Gough not out 26
(34 min, 26 balls, 2 fours)
P J Martin not out 0
(1 min, 1 ball)
Extras (lb8, w4) 12
Total (for 8, 203 min, 50 overs) 235
Fall: 1-31 (Atherton), 2-58 (Hick), 3-66 (Smith), 4-94 (Thorpe), 5-145 (Stewart), 6-171 (Russell), 7-173 (DeFreitas), 8-235 (Reeve).
Did not bat: R K Illingworth.
Bowling: Wickremasinghe 7-0-43-0 (w1) (6-0-33-0, 1-0-10-0); Vaas 8-1- 29-1 (w1) (6-1-16-1, 1-0-2-0, 1-0-11-0); Muralitharan 10-1-37-2 (w1) (5- 0-23-1, 5-1-14-1); Dharmasena 10-0-30-2 (7-0-23-1, 3-0-7-1); Jayasuriya 9-0-46-2 (4-0-15-0, 2-0-12-0, 1-0-2-1, 2-0-17-1); De Silva 6-0-42-0 (w1) (2-0-16-0, 4-0-26-0).
Progress: 50: 52 min, 72 balls. 100: 109 min, 155 balls. 150: 150 min, 214 balls. 200: 188 min, 276 balls.
DeFreitas 50: 57 min, 46 balls, 3 fours, 2 sixes.
S T Jayasuriya st Russell b Reeve 82
(66 min, 44 balls, 13 fours, 3 sixes)
R S Kaluwitharana b Illingworth 8
(7 min, 3 balls, 2 fours)
A P Gurusinha run out (Gough) 45
(125 min, 63 balls, 5 fours)
P A de Silva c Smith b Hick 31
(38 min, 30 balls, 5 fours)
*A Ranatunga lbw b Gough 25
(15 min, 17 balls, 5 fours)
H P Tillekeratne not out 19
(65 min, 50 balls, 1 four)
R S Mahanama not out 22
(55 min, 38 balls, 2 fours)
Extras (lb1, w2, nb1) 4
Total (for 5, 189 min, 40.4 overs) 236
Fall: 1-12 (Kaluwitharana), 2-113 (Jayasuriya), 3-165 (de Silva), 4-194 (Ranatunga), 5-198 (Gurusinha).
Did not bat: W P U C J Vaas, M Muralitharan, H D P K Dharmasena, G P Wickremasinghe.
Bowling: Martin 9-1-41-0 (w2) (6-0-31-0, 3-1-10-0); Illingworth 10-1- 72-1 (2-0-27-1, 5-0-33-0, 3-1-12-0); Gough 10-1-36-1 (2-0-17-0, 1-0-4- 0, 7-1-15-1); DeFreitas 3.4-0-38-0 (2-0-32-0, 1.4-0-6-0); Reeve 4-1-14- 1 (nb1) (3-0-14-1, 1-1-0-0); Hick 4-0-34-1 (one spell).
Progress: 50: 37 min, 46 balls. 100: 57 min, 69 balls. 150: 100 min, 122 balls. 200: 137 min, 168 balls.
Jayasuriya 50: 47 min, 30 balls, 10 fours.
Umpires: Mahboob Shah (Pak) and I D Robinson (Zim).
TV replay umpire: V K Ramaswamy (Ind).
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