Hussain's old guard must stand aside for tougher generation

Third Ashes Test: English cricket is languishing in another age and drastic action must be taken to clear away legacy of 15 years of failure

By James Lawton
Monday 02 December 2002 01:00
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It was not so much an English cricket team which had become a parody of competitive instinct which was slaughtered, again, in Perth yesterday. It was a way of thinking, a way of reacting, a way of dealing which truths which have been hammered home – in the case of Ashes competition – for 15 years now.

So predictable have been the English responses to Australian supremacy since Mike Gatting's team enjoyed that last taste of victory in 1987 that we know instantly the certain fate of Ian Botham's call for an immediate clear-out of the old guard which has failed so miserably to provide either leadership or example these last few weeks.

Lord's, we can be certain, will not raid the Adelaide academy where some of the nation's brightest talent is currently being groomed by old Aussie warhorse Rod Marsh and say thank you and au revoir to such as Alec Stewart, 39, Andrew Caddick (33) and John Crawley, a 31-year-old who once wrote a plaintive tour diary – for public consumption – about the loss of the consolations of home (sentiments which would have been greeted with blank disbelief "down under"). Such radical action as a re-shaping of the current, failed squad – as a practical gesture towards the future – will not happen because it is simply not the way of English cricket. The ethos of the committee still reigns. When reforms to the moribund County Championship are made they are the most transparent of window dressing. There is no insistence on a gathering of the élite and the throwing of them into genuine, regular high-class competition.

What Botham is saying is bold – but palpably right. He is saying that we are not in some passing trough in relation to competition with the Australians. We are languishing in another age, on another planet, and without the means to produce a new and tougher generation of players without first clearing away the killing legacy of the wasted years.

More than a decade ago, when England's international cricket was plainly falling alarmingly below the standard set by Australia and the then rampant West Indians, the Somerset captain – and some people's idea of a potentially long-shot, innovative leader of the England team, Peter Roebuck offered a sensational, mad-cap idea.

He was talking in the shade of the pavilion at Worcester on a bright summer's morning. He said that English cricket was failing to produce players of sufficient competitive character and, crucially – as we have learned so comprehensively recently – physical strength. Roebuck's plan was to pick out those young players who had showed genuine promise and simply toughen them up. Send them to the Australian outback, for example, where they might cut trees or shave sheep for a year and come back with the physical resources to play professional cricket without the constant fear of breakdown. Lord's, of course, merely frowned at such wild talk.

Now we contemplate the nadir of England's efforts to stay remotely in the zone of Australian excellence. We consider all over again the pathetic dalliance over the issue of Graham Thorpe's involvement in the Ashes series. We remember the embarrassing pre-tour agonies of the squad to tour India last winter. We think of the wooliness of sending an unfit Darren Gough Down Under, and wonder why half the party were not granted a stop-over in Lourdes.

What happens now? Some grisly exploration of the future in the remaining Tests in Melbourne and Sydney. It has become one of the saddest rituals in international sport, this business of England playing for comfort in some dead but warmed over Test series which for Australians retains all the compulsion of a pub selling lemonade.

Botham's call for some new level of reaction touches a chord. At the very least it addresses the long-held Australian conviction that England is incapable of nurturing its brightest talent; that there is simply no conviction about who are the real players in whom to invest.

Last year, shortly before the Australians completed another crushing of England before their own people, their captain Steve Waugh was invited to offer some advice. Reluctantly, he said: "It's not really my business, but it does seem to me that England have one great priority. They have to understand the need to encourage their young players – give them confidence in themselves. You do this by picking them and trusting them a bit. If you have recognised talent, you have to keep faith with it. You have to be a little patient."

But of course you first have to break a mould of defeat. You have to be bold. You cannot do this in a committee room. You cannot shift responsibility as if you are passing a parcel that inevitably arrives in the hands of the kind of haggard figure the captain Nasser Hussain now represents. You need leadership fashioned by anger at the scale of current failure. The old palliatives will no longer do. English cricket has once more proved unfit to share a field with the Australians. In the disgrace of it Ian Botham offered more than a soundbite. He said that something must be done.

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