Brian Viner: If even Monty is giving fielding masterclasses, have England simply peaked too soon?

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

It's always easier to read the runes after the event. Looking back at the England cricket team's disastrous tour of Australia in 2006-07, any number of unpromising portents leap out, perhaps chief among them the champagne-soaked, MBE-strewn triumphalism of 2005, but also the myopic appointment of Andrew Flintoff as captain.

Yesterday, I enjoyed a trencherman's breakfast with Mike Gatting, the last man to skipper an Ashes-winning England team Down Under, exactly 20 years before that 2006-07 pummelling. Before setting off to meet him, I looked up what he had said to me shortly before the '06-'07 series, when some experts were asserting that Freddie might be just the man to lead a successful tour. "Flintoff's like Botham," mused Gatting, "in that there's huge responsibility on his shoulders even without the captaincy. Not being captain enabled Beefy to stay out of the spotlight. It gave him time to wind down after a Test match. For that reason I would have given it to [Andrew] Strauss."

He would have been right to do so, although it is questionable whether, that particular winter, a side captained by Strauss would have done significantly better. Moreover, even if Strauss had avoided a 5-0 whitewash, his team would still almost certainly have suffered a hefty defeat, diminishing his stature as a leader. Had that been the case, the captain Gatting wanted then might not be captain now. Ifs and buts and mights. Happily, Strauss is the captain now, and a very good one. But where are the portents that early in the new year we will look back on with the solemn wisdom of hindsight? Most of them, it has to be said, indicate that England will retain the Ashes. The Aussies look in comparative disarray, while Strauss's team looks solid in every department, even, hold on to your hats, the Monty Panesar fielding department.

On Wednesday, during Australia A's first innings in Hobart, dear old Monty launched himself like a prima ballerina to intercept the left-handed Tasmanian Ed Cowan's pull through midwicket. It was a flying, one-handed catch the likes of which any of the great divers and swoopers would have been proud to call their own, and he bagged it with his weaker right hand, too. When even Panesar is fielding like Derek Randall, and with both Alastair Cook and Ian Bell having reasserted their class with centuries, in the latter's case a knock of real majesty, it certainly looks as if the tiny urn will take some wresting from England's grasp. But, while I hate to pour cold water on this very understandable optimism, let us not rule out the possibility that we will look back and see the optimism itself as the portent we should have recognised that the Aussies would be under-estimated and all would go pear-shaped.

More jeers than cheers as the beers run out at Wembley

To add insult to injury at Wembley on Wednesday night, I was sitting a row behind the most annoying kind of voluble Frenchman, one with an extravagant quiff and a sense, regrettably reinforced by his girlfriend and two other companions, that he was something of a comedian. To make matters even worse, just behind me sat the most annoying kind of boorish Englishman, one who felt he was making a welcome contribution to proceedings by chanting "dirty foreign bastards" every time an opposing player committed even the most innocuous foul.

Not even the expensive seats at Wembley – which mine was, courtesy of my old schoolfriend Mark, who has made a bob or two since I lent him £100 to complete our Interrailing holiday in 1982 – come with a guarantee that you won't be sitting within earshot or even elbow radius of a complete plonker. More grievously, nor do they come with a guarantee that the spectacle on the pitch will be worth leaving home for, which England's dismal performance manifestly wasn't. Still, there was ample compensation in the form of a good natter and several pints of Guinness in Club Wembley's swanky Seafood Bar, at least until they abruptly ran out of Guinness. Apparently they didn't anticipate such heavy demand, the presence of quite so many people on the evening of a football international somehow catching them on the hop. Whatever, it was almost as woeful a night for the food and beverages side of the operation as it was for Fabio Capello, Steven Gerrard and Co down on the field of play.

More to Platini than platitudes

It was a real pleasure to sit down on Monday morning with the Uefa president, Michel Platini, an interview published elsewhere in these pages. And from the exchanges we had after my tape recorder was switched off, I got the impression that we could just as easily have spent our hour together chatting about wine, or Michelin-starred restaurants. I don't agree with all his ideas about football, but it is reassuring to know that Uefa is led by such a civilised fellow.

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