The old failings remain

Simon O'Hagan finds that a season which promised much delivered little
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This was the season that was supposed to mark the latest new dawn for the England cricket team, but irrespective of what happens in the Texaco Trophy series against Pakistan, it is ending with the rising sun struggling to break through a thick bank of cloud.

The Test series win over India that seemed, at the time, to mark real progress after the horrors of the winter can be seen now as a misleading measure of England's standing. For that to be more accurately determined we were always going to need the help of Pakistan, and they obliged with performances that, at Lord's and the Oval, gave England a withering reminder of just how much further they have to go before they can expect to match the best in the world.

In the aftermath of England's defeat in the third Test there has been no shortage of expert opinion on where they have been going wrong, none more cogently expressed than that of Wasim Akram, the Pakistan captain, within minutes of his team triumphantly wrapping up the series last week.

There was nothing new in Wasim's contention that English cricketers play too much. The Acfield Report had already come to that conclusion, and it is a point the country's 400 or so county professionals have been making for years. But in suggesting that England had been too defensive against Mushtaq Ahmed, and in questioning the omission of both Andrew Caddick from the Test team and John Crawley and Nasser Hussain from the one-dayers, Wasim gave the lie to the idea that England's mental preparation had improved under David Lloyd while highlighting the confused principles behind the business of selection.

Stuart Law, Essex's overseas player until he left to join Australia in Sri Lanka halfway through last month, then added insult to injury with his assertion that most English cricketers wouldn't get a look-in in the Sheffield Shield, and that many were turning up for matches too tired even to want to play.

Are things really that bad? A slightly more charitable view comes from Les Stillman, another Australian, whose coaching of Derbyshire this season has helped turn them into front-runners in the County Championship. He believes the average English cricketer is no worse than his Australian counterpart (one thing that has struck him is how much harder batsmen here hit the ball compared with those Down Under), but he accepts that bowling is where England have a real area of concern. He feels, however, that the reason for that has less to do with bowlers' excessive workloads than the tradition of counties preparing wickets to their own advantage.

"People talk about how much Dominic Cork has been bowling, but at Derbyshire recently he hasn't had very much bowling at all," Stillman said last week. "Where I feel sorry for him is in Tests. With Pakistan, Mushtaq can bowl 40 overs a day, which means the faster men just rotate at the other end. England don't have anybody like that, so Cork has to bowl a lot more."

Stillman disputes the significance of statistics contained in the Acfield Report, which show that Cork is being forced to play more than half as much cricket again as Australian Test players. "What you've got to remember are the conditions in which Cork is having to play. It's better for him to play two days on softish ground in 18-degree temperatures than it is for an Australian to play in 40-degree heat on hard wickets. A lot of what is said about how much cricketers play is just an excuse.

"My biggest criticism is the preparation of wickets. A team with two spinners will have a spinning wicket so spinners look better than they really are. I've been shocked by that." Seamers, meanwhile, are flattered by figures they record on green wickets, of which there is a prevalence in England. "I think it's just a bit short-sighted," Stillman said.

The Lord's and Oval wickets for the Tests against Pakistan were a bone of contention for Lloyd, who felt they played into the opposition's hands. In Stillman's eyes they were just what Test and wickets should be - "Nice, true, fast and bouncy, where the spinners will come into play, the nicks will carry off the fast bowlers, and the batsmen can hook and cut and drive." Implication: if England cannot live with Pakistan on such a wicket they should not complain about it.

There are good enough English bowlers about, according to Stillman. Cork, naturally, another Derbyshire man in Andy Harris, Dean Headley, and the two Yorkshiremen Darren Gough and Chris Silverwood are the quicks who have impressed him most this season. But he reiterates the importance of selectors showing more faith in players than England's do.

"Poor old Ian Salisbury comes in and they might play him on a flat wicket and he knows that could be his last chance. You've got to remember that when Shane Warne first got in the Australian team he was still bowling full tosses and double-bouncers. He couldn't bowl half the balls he can bowl now, but the selectors were prepared to give him a run in the side." The selection of the 42-year-old John Emburey last year against West Indies "could never have happened in Australia", Stillman said. "What if Robert Croft had been given an opportunity then? By now he could have been on his way to establishing an international career."

Physically, it does seem that young English bowlers take longer to develop than those from other Test-playing nations. Geoff Arnold, former England seam bowler and coach of Surrey, now heavily involved with junior teams, has noticed this, along with the fact that at senior level, "we don't seem to be able to bowl line and length any more".

Perhaps, though, Arnold had better news from the England Under-19s, whom he has worked with this summer. Alas, no. "Our four first-choice seam bowlers have all been injured." Where have we heard that before?