Flower among the thorns

2009-05-01 00:00

ALREADY Andy Flower has shown the strength of mind needed to succeed as England coach. His first squad reveals the clarity of thought and toughness of mind required to lick his troops into shape. Ever since the 2005 Ashes, England have lived in a Neverneverland. Cricketers became celebrities in that rare summer of contentment, and some of them have not completely recovered. Those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first include in glossy magazines. England cricketers of the ’05 vintage were given gongs, paid millions to write books and paraded around as conquering heroes. Ambition should be made of sterner stuff. Party for a week and then move along.

Among those dispatched in Flower’s first wave of cullings are Michael Vaughan, Steve Harmison and Ian Bell. All have been judged pragmatically. Carl Hooper used to wear a T-shirt saying that “Form is temporary, class is permanent”. It was a convenient over-simplification. It was also irritating. Talent is not static, and can be squandered. Ask Kim Hughes (or read the splendid recent biography). Blighted by injury, Vaughan had not scored nearly enough runs to be considered and was rightly treated as a cricketer and not as a reincarnation of Richard The Lionheart. Unless his fortunes change he will presently earn his crust writing in the newspapers and banging the drum on television (is it me or has the IPL commentary been a tad over the top?

Mark Nicholas gushes more than a Californian well). Vaughan has been a fine batsman and captain, but sportsmen are judged on present production not past deeds.

Bell is not much of a loss. He looks the part but his brain does not work properly. The problem is that he sets not like concrete but jelly. Repeatedly he loses his wicket after reaching 20 or 30.

Such lapses of concentration are a luxury in Test cricket. Concentration is easily instilled by any coach given a free hand. It’s simply a matter of making charges watch the ball and play it in isolation. Play the moment. Psychology is important too. Batsmen seeking to avoid failure will fall as soon as that has been accomplished. In county cricket, I used to get out upon reaching 50 because the inner brain knew that failure had been avoided. Eventually I learnt to take a fresh guard at 50 thereby renewing the brain and promptly went from the worst converter of half-centuries to the best. By now Bell ought to have sorted himself out.

Harmison has caused too many headaches. All this man-management stuff is overrated. Cricket is about common cause. Mostly men must manage themselves. Tall and swift, he can be dangerous but lacks a leader’s force of character and commitment to the cause. Fast bowlers can be as temperamental as chefs and, so long as they spread fear and take wickets, no one will care. Unfortunately Harmison has been a soft touch. Apparently he does not enjoy touring, in which case he is better left behind.

Moreover he lacks technical insight. Batsmen tend to regard bowlers as clods and automatons.

This is not entirely fair. Having taken up the activity late in life, I was amazed to discover that wind, balls, footholds, slopes, umpires, rules and so forth can indeed upset the applecart.

Moreover, rhythm is as hard to pin down as paper in a tempest. Experience teaches a man to correct flaws quickly. Harmison still panics when things go wrong. These blokes must force their way back into the side.

Flower has cut out the weeds and planted a few seeds of his own. A man must begin as he intends to continue. Ravi Bopara will occupy the vital first-wicket-down position. Brash and bold, and technically sound, he deserves his opportunity. Brave decisions usually work because they convey confidence. Tim Bresnan and Graham Onions have been invited to add spice to the attack.

Bresnan is a strong Yorkshireman with plenty of cricket in him. Traditionally, Yorkshire, the mines and the private schools have been English cricket’s best breeding grounds. Alas since the mines have closed and the top schools have become civilised so much depends on the white rose county.

Yorkshiremen tend to be maligned merely because of vanity and deep pockets but they love the game and guard it well. Bresnan caught the eye playing club cricket in Australia and is a sound choice.

Onions has been around for years. Like many of the best Englishmen, he comes from Durham.

Only local diehards have actually seen him bowl, but he keeps taking wickets and at 28 evidently knows a thing or two about his craft. Stuart Clark was regarded as limited until he was given his chance whereupon everyone realised they had been talking rot. Onions has just bowled out Somerset for 69 at Taunton, widely regarded as a batting paradise.

For the second time in three appointments, England have looked towards Africa for the conviction they cannot themselves muster. Therein lies the problem. Can Flower instil his own hard-headed attitudes or will bad habits prove too intractable? He has started on the right foot, but it’s only a beginning. At any rate, Zimbabwe’s loss has been England’s gain.

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

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