What all should wake up to is the paucity of talent in English cricket brought about by an anachronistic County Championship

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The Independent Online
A fault of my trade, together with television and radio, is to raise public expectation of British sport out of all proportion to potential. It happens all the time and has served to compound the pressure on Michael Atherton.

If Atherton has not been entirely blameless in matters of general leadership and tactical nous, it was pretty obvious before the present Test series against Australia began that England's chances of regaining the Ashes were on the wrong side of slim. Simply by comparing one set of players against the other any mug should have known how to bet.

My faith in the belief that Australia would win the series by 3-l was no more than slightly disturbed when England got off to a flier in the first Test at Edgbaston and as things stand I am confident of collecting.

Unfortunately for Atherton, who is a man of some circumspection, that victory resulted in a predictable outburst of ludicrous triumphalism in popular prints and across the airwaves. The England and Wales Cricket Board chairman, Lord MacLaurin proved equally culpable when putting forward the view that England, presumably on the strength of one performance, were close to being the most potent force in world cricket.

If subsequent events have again shown the folly of wild conclusions, experience tells us that they are sure to be repeated. Take, for example, a widespread reaction to the success of England's footballers in the recent Tournoi de France, an event to which only they appeared fully committed. Victories over Italy and France were an indication of progress not a convincing reason to suppose that England, if they qualify, will be a major force in next year's World Cup finals.

Arrogance has got a lot to do with this, a refusal to accept, especially in football and cricket, the facts that modern history sets before us. It is quite a while since England were among the leaders in cricket and in 45 years of competing for the football World Cup they have only twice got beyond the quarter finals.

It is amazing how many people, including politicians of high standing, business tycoons, sports administrators and members of my profession, who really should know better, refuse stubbornly to take the aforementioned truths on board.

For a comparatively small nation, the United Kingdom does remarkably well and few other nations attempt success across such a broad sporting spectrum. The trouble is that having given most games to the world, achievement is still looked upon as a birthright in this country. Thus the soul-searching in cricket, the popular anthem, "Football's Coming Home'' that accompanied England into last year's European Championship finals.

Atherton doubtless runs out of patience with his detractors, as anybody would, because by and large he has conducted himself creditably, and saved England at the crease on more than one occasion. Perhaps he is bewildered too, especially when some of his stoutest defenders put the zing on him for doing the sort of things they applauded in previous seasons.

If Atherton survives as captain it is possible that his reputation will be restored in the remaining two Tests although it cannot be imagined that England will emerge from their present state of despair to even level the series.

What all should wake up to is the paucity of talent in English cricket, the difficulties in development brought about by an anachronistic County Championship. A fundamental truth about the present circumstances is that apart from Nasser Hussain, and possibly Atherton, no England cricketer would get into the Australian team. Once over that first defeat, due probably to staleness and the slow adaption of their pace attack to English conditions, Australia have proved superior in every department.

A personal point of view is that the blame for England's recent dismal performances should be apportioned. It should be borne not only by the whole team and its selectors but those who lumbered Atherton with the burden of their foolish expectations.