FLOWER of England

2011-08-06 00:00

ENGLAND’S rise to top spot in the Test rankings has been the product of tough decisions and wise appointments. India’s decline has been caused by sloppy thinking and poor leadership. England have been helped by fearless and intelligent comments made by past captains, including Mike Atherton and Nasser Hussain. India do not enjoy the benefit of any such elevated scrutiny.

Twenty years ago English cricket had fallen into a deep hole. County cricket had lost its rigour. In times past every run was resented and batsmen were pitted against umpteen cranky old craftsmen, all capable of keeping a mean length and line. In its own way it was a proud profession. Gradually cynicism crept in, with arranged declarations, donkey-drop bowling and other betrayals.

Inevitably the performance of the national side fell away. England had forgotten how to produce players. Eventually the board realised that the slide was man-made and not cyclical, whereupon it took action. Central contracts were awarded so that the Test players were not drained by their counties. Two divisions were created so that every contest was competitive. Four-day matches were introduced so that batsmen could build innings and bowlers could develop attacking skills.

With hindsight all these changes were obvious, but they were fiercely resisted by counties determined to retain traditions. Since the old ways had produced Len Hutton, Ken Barrington and Jack Hobbs, they could not be to blame. Moreover, members liked one division, wanted to see the best players turn out and preferred three-day cricket. And they owned the clubs.

Happily the progressives prevailed. It helped that recent deeply frustrated captains led the debate. In their eyes county cricket was not a law unto itself, but part of a pyramid in danger of collapsing. Tired of wallopings dished out by rampant Australians, they argued for stronger structures.

Of course, that is not the entire story. Imposing captains and coaches played their parts. England have won only three Ashes series since 1986/7 and a Zimbabwean coach presided over all of them.

Those who are persuaded that coaches do not matter in cricket might ponder the point. Andy Flower and Duncan Fletcher demanded high standards and instilled tough attitudes.

English cricket has also been uplifted by its foreign contingent. It’s a topic locals are reluctant to discuss, but the facts speak for themselves. Four of the current top seven batsmen, and several of the aspirants, come from South Africa. It cannot be a coincidence. And it’s the same in the rugby. Fourteen of the 45 players named in the preliminary squad for the forthcoming World Cup were born and partly raised overseas.

Of the cricketers, Matt Prior and Andrew Strauss arrived as children brought by parents seeking a safer life, and England is happy to claim them. But that begs the question why they made it and not a hundred thousand others from Budleigh and Leeds? Is it not possible that they combined the hunger of the immigrant with the hardness of Africa? English cricket is uplifted because so many of the immigrant communities come from cricketing countries, itself a product of Empire.

Kevin Pietersen and Jonathon Trott were capable cricketers before they went to England, but their subsequent contributions have surpassed expectations, except possibly their own. English critics ought to study the attitudes and experiences of these players better to absorb them into their own systems. Has it been a question of culture or facilities or coaching or family? Cricket is a game handed down the generations. Or is it because soccer is not yet as influential amongst white South Africans?

Happily, old England also have plenty to boast about, with Graeme Swann taking wickets in his cheeky chappie way, James Anderson making the ball duck and dive like a Spitfire with the Luftwaffe on its tail, Alastair Cook collecting runs like a farmer’s wife does eggs and Tim Bresnan reminding all and sundry of the timelessness of the yeoman.

England deserve the top spot and has the ambition and firepower needed to retain it. Bear in mind that Chris Tremlett did not play in the second test and that Steve Finn waits in the wings. In the end it’s the bowling that matters. England have a varied team with a solid top order, a match winner at four, a long batting order capable of spectacular rallies, an attack that can use its height to extract bounce or its fingers to produce swing and spin. Not the least of England’s contributions has been to disprove the fallacy that modern cricket balls do not swing. It’s all a question of skill.

Meanwhile India fall back, victim of an administration with its eyes on the bottom line, not the top of the table. Not even Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan can be relied upon to stop the English charge.

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