This summer's visitors, India and Pakistan, were for a long time regarded as easy meat by our national side, a chance to swell the batting average and pick up some easy wickets. There remains a lingering colonial sense that we "ought" to be able to teach them a thing or two about the game. But those days are long gone. We have beaten Pakistan only once in the last 19 attempts, and India only four times. Increasingly, they look on England much as we look on Zimbabwe, as a confidence-boosting opportunity to find form for the harder struggles to come.
As always, the talk is mainly concerned with the search for the right "formula", as if the selection of cricket teams were like cooking, merely a matter of mixing the right ingredients. The idea that the mixture needs time to bind and ripen seems too radical for our selectors; they want simply to add water and boil. Yet the Pakistan team that just beat us was more or less the same as the one that beat us in the World Cup, a good advertisement for the benefits of a settled side bravely adhered to in the teeth of the hurricane of abuse that greeted the traumatic loss to India in the quarter-final.
There were just three changes. England, in contrast, fielded only four of the same players, one of whom, Stewart, only regained his place because of injuries. The latest formula-seeking initiative breaks new ground, no place for the so-called one-day specialist who scored a hundred last time he played (Alistair Brown) and no place for Hussain and Crawley, centurions in the Test matches. The less said about all this, the better.
It was left to Wasim Akram to spell out once again the thing that everyone knows, which is that English cricket is suffering from serious internal bleeding. "The answer to your problem is simple," he said. "England play too much cricket." Who could disagree?
Just after Christmas, I sat with Allan Donald watching Cork dash in against South Africa at Newlands. Donald was talking about the pressure on fast bowlers to keep up a good head of steam, and explaining how, when he returned to South Africa at the end of his triumphant season for Warwickshire, he practically had a nervous breakdown, and visited a psychiatrist in an attempt to rekindle his crashed enthusiasm for the game.
In passing, he prophesied the fate of England's only aggressive bowler. "Look at Cork," he said. "That guy's bowling a lot of overs. You have to wonder how long he can last. At some point it's going to hit him."
So we can't say we weren't warned. "We have been told," Wasim said, "that Dominic Cork, at 24, is burnt out. But he is going back to Derbyshire to play more cricket. Surely he should be rested." Yes, surely. We have a game, it seems, that burns out its brightest stars as swiftly as they appear. It is hardly a surprise that Shaun Pollock, Warwickshire's impressive fast-bowling replacement for Donald, is heading home to have surgery on his ankle.
Plus ca change. The much-vaunted Acfield report has urged nothing more substantial than the setting up of some new committees to handle the England team. Ray Illingworth, in a parting shot presumably designed to indicate, as if it needed indicating, that he is not a soft touch, has emphasised that if Cork did miss one of the winter tours, it would be to put in some hard bloody work. "He won't be kept at home to sit on his backside," he said. Of all the batty notions that have swept English cricket this summer, the idea that Cork is a lazy, no-good slacker is one of the more ludicrous.
The English disease, as Wasim pointed out, is too much quantity, and not enough quality. It particularly blights the prospect of ever producing fit fast bowlers. We have a batting line-up that might well flourish if it was not always chasing 500, or going out in the second innings a couple of hundred runs adrift.
But will anything change? Pull the other one. Our premier domestic competition will, as always, be won by the team that best negotiates the thundery showers of late August. Meanwhile, Glamorgan are somehow finding pounds 200,000 to lure Waqar Younis to Wales, where around 9,000 spectators will pay to watch him in an entire season. The sideshow must go on.Reuse content