There comes a time when you have to let go

2009-04-10 00:00

SOMETIMES it’s hard to let go. Every country has its favourites, match-winners with bat, ball or brain, players whose mere inclusion in a team seems to make it stronger. In England’s case, Michael Vaughan is the current example. As far as the Australians are concerned, Andrew Symonds and Shane Watson fulfil the requirements. Among South Africans, Herschelle Gibbs stands out as a candidate. In all of these cases the selectors have bent over backwards to retain or renew the player, giving them a licence deigned to others. More often than not, the strategy goes wrong because it reflects an attempt to preserve the past as opposed to looking ahead.

Vaughan has been included in the prematurely chosen squad from which England will supposedly choose their side for the forthcoming Ashes series. Never mind that he has hardly scored a run in any company, let alone international, for a couple of years. Never mind that he has hardly been fit in that time. Never mind that he seems to be past his peak. England have been struggling, the call has gone out and Vaughan is back in the reckoning. It tells of a desperation to recapture lost glories. The adopted Yorkshireman has been a fine first drop in his time, but he’s been sliding, and the idea that the sight of a baggy green cap will inspire him is optimistic.

Unless Vaughan scores a few hundreds for his county in the early matches, England ought to forget about him. It was a mistake to let him hover around the fringes of the team on the last tour to Australia, because it distracted attention from the real battle and provoked speculation about a possible comeback. In short it portrayed Vaughan as a saviour. Not that he has been entirely to blame for the focus on him. Ian Bell and Owais Shah have been given plenty of chances to establish themselves at first wicket down, yet the position remains open. England’s inability to find a young batsman with the technique and temperament needed to fill Vaughan’s boots, is the root of the problem.

By including Symonds in their party to play 50-over matches against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi, Australia have likewise ignored his shortage of runs, wickets and, until recently, enthusiasm. Brett Lee and Watson have also been plucked from their gyms and nets. Both have been injured for several months. Perhaps the Australian selectors have simply given themselves a last chance to assess, with no strings attached, the form of these players before they name their sides for the 20-over World Cup and Ashes campaign. In the same act, they have given gifted players with impressive records a final chance to prove their worth. If so, the nomination has some merit.

None of these ageing players can walk back into the side. On paper the team looks stronger with them. Symonds is a talented and explosive player, Lee can swing the new ball at high pace and Watson is a genuine all-rounder. None of them, though, has been performing to expectation. Watson has been dogged by injury and averaged 26 with the bat in India and a lot more with the ball. Lee has had a rotten year whilst Symonds has caused more headaches than a Deep Purple concert.

Meanwhile the Test team have won in these parts without them. Probably they’d be handy in these one-day capers and it’s possible they were chosen with that in mind. Symonds and Lee have been giants of the genre and deserve some dispensation. But the Australians ought not to rush them back into Test cricket without proof they can still cut the mustard. Otherwise the team will be bogged down by their frustrations. Reputation is not supposed to mean much Down Under.

Gibbs is this country’s dilemma. A brilliant batsman on his day, outstanding in the 2003 World Cup and on 438 Sunday, he has been fading as his days become further apart. Like Symonds, his frailties have become more obvious as his performances deteriorate. Unlike the Australian, though, he has a charm about him that craves forgiving and forgetting. Apparently, too, he is trying hard to rehabilitate himself, forswearing grog and so forth. He has even started letting a few off-side deliveries pass. At his age he cannot any longer be dropped and recalled. Gibbs is making his last stand. All the more reason not to rush him to the gate.

Every case is different. To my mind England need to get over their Vaughanitis and move forward. Australia were wise to allow Lee, but not Watson, to try their luck in the last chance saloon. Take your pick with Symonds. The local think-tank was right to back Gibbs a little longer. At Newlands on Thursday he played several sumptuous strokes telling of exceptional and enduring ability. Sooner or later, though, the community will need to acknowledge decline.

•Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in the KZN midlands.

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