A lack of local quality has seen England rely on its imports

2008-06-13 00:00

Despite crushing New Zealand in the final Test of the recent series, English cricket has little reason to puff up its chest. Patchy performances against a transfixed Kiwi outfit will hardly disconcert better-staffed opponents. Held at Lord’s, England scrambled home in the second Test, as the visitors made a hash of it. Then Michael Vaughan and company produced more swing than Count Basie to trounce their opponents in Nottingham.

In the end, the victory was conclusive, but it merely papered over the cracks. Certainly, Graeme Smith and chums will not be quaking. Nor will an evolving Australian outfit. But, then, the Australians have hard minds and an eye for a cricketer. Otherwise Beau Casson would not be playing Test cricket. For years, he was a wayward purveyor of chinamen. But the locals saw something in him and persisted.

Considering the amount of money hurled at the game in the old country, and the number of coaches, psychologists, schemes and attention England gives to the game, all of them busy creating an industry for themselves, subduing a stretched Kiwi outfit ought to be the least of its ambitions. At some point in the last 50 years, the country that invented the game and claimed ownership of it for so long ought to have stood at the top of the rankings. Frank Tyson, Jim Laker and Peter May played in the last dominant England side. Ever since, England have meandered along, never quite the best or the worst. Occasional surges have been mistaken for transforming events. But a compromised culture is not so easily changed.

Apart from its negativity and nationalism (sometimes leavened by humour), the problem with English cricket is that it provides a source of income for hundreds of inadequate people. In times past, each county had 13 players on its books, craftsmen eeking out a living. Passion was the only reason for taking up the game professionally. Now rivers of money flow, most of it wasted on second-raters. Still England cannot produce a team; not without help anyhow. Still the counties seek imports. Some counties have more foreigners than locals in their squads, many sign coaches raised in rigour and therefore able to impart it. In short, the restoration of English cricket has been faked.

In its pomp, England relied on coal miners and aristocrats. The aristocrats offered ruthlessness and self-sacrifice, whilst the miners produced bulging hearts and broad backs. East Enders and modern educators are poorly placed to produce their like. Paul Collingwood’s dad works in a factory. No wonder he has surpassed expectations.

Ever since these supply lines broke down, England have been forced to live on their wits. Certainly the sprawling system in place does not produce much except mutual backslapping. Success has depended upon individual efforts from outsiders. Monty Panesar took the crucial wickets in the second contest. Admittedly, he was raised in Northampton (everyone has to be brought up somewhere), but as a Sikh, he has a strong second identity. Kevin Pietersen revived England at Trent Bridge, and found an ally in Tim Ambrose. Pietersen hails from hereabouts. Ambrose is Australian. Meanwhile, the parents of an England batsman playing in the last Ashes series spent the entire flight from Adelaide to Perth complaining that the (vastly superior) hosts were better-paid than their wretched boy.

For that matter, Andrew Strauss’s family moved to England. Doubtless, they brought with them the hardness of African custom. African settlers of all colours contribute significantly to English sport. It is not merely ability. That is a patronising outlook. Mostly it is character and desire. As Binyavanga Wainania has pointed out, Africa’s contribution to English life reaches beyond sport.

Kenyans (123 000) and Nigerians (146 000) perform well above the average economically and educationally. Appalled by the local schools, many of these immigrants send their children home for a proper raising.

Even those born locally are not necessarily products of the system. Most of them came from established cricketing families. Ryan Sidebottom’s dad was a fiery flame-haired seamer. Stuart Broad’s progenitor was an upright Test opener. Chris Tremlett’s father could land the ball on a threepenny bit. These youngsters learnt the game, not from a badge, but in their backyard.

In short, England has a long way to go. Luckily, its cricket team can rely on players from former colonies. Moreover, most rivals lack the single-mindedness needed to expose weaknesses.

Whether or not that applies to South Africa will emerge in the next few weeks.

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

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