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Familiar failings plague England

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

26 March 1998

'THE merry-go-round mentality that demands a change of captain, a change of coach, a change of chairman, is not the answer,'' said the England coach, David Lloyd, before the final Test of last summer's failed campaign against Australia. ``It is,'' he added, ``an English trait to clamour for change, to lose the real priorities behind the emotional charge of finding scapegoats. We have got to rise above that and concentrate on making our players more consistent.''

Well, in the series which ended in a 3-1 win to the West Indies amid tumultuous excitement with only seven overs of the extra hour remaining, England once more were consistent only in their inconsistency and there was indeed a scapegoat, albeit a voluntary one. Mike Atherton suddenly looked a younger and happier man once he had taken the decision, in telephone consultation with David Graveney on the last morning of the sixth Test, to drop the heavy load of the captaincy.

He can enjoy himself now, initially fighting for his place in the one-day internationals as one of the ranks under Adam Hollioake; later to become a valuable and refreshed opening batsman with a new focus, for Lancashire and, probably, England. Who will turn to him for advice this season need not be decided by the selectors until the South Africans arrive in May.

Nasser Hussain, as vice-captain, is the logical choice but Alec Stewart the more likely one as a stop-gap, with Hussain and Mark Ramprakash in waiting. Those who said that Stewart should have been made captain 4.5 years ago, to give Atherton more time and experience, may well have been right. He would not have lasted so long but Atherton, had he waited two more years, might then have served longer even than his record 52 Tests.

It was an extraordinary performance by the West Indies to take seven England wickets after tea on the final day - Bridgetown 1990 all over again - albeit helped by the schoolboyish running out of Hussain and Graham Thorpe's dim- witted faith in tailenders he should have been trying to protect. That was thoroughly bad cricket and in the end all England's efforts to make themselves tougher wilted in the face of the superhuman will to win which has so often enabled either Curtly Ambrose or, in this case, Courtney Walsh to vanquish their opponents.

The 3-1 scoreline was, as Brian Lara gracefully hinted, a travesty. In the end, though, England cannot complain too loudly because of Tuesday's collapse and their failure to win the first completed Test when they were 252 runs ahead with six second-innings wickets in hand on a difficult pitch in Port of Spain.

They came back nobly in the match which followed, but the loss of the only two tosses which mattered, at Bourda and St John's, and rain on the last day in Barbados ended hope of the first England win in a Caribbean series since 1968. The Wisden trophy may be on its way back to Lord's again, but its ownership rests firmly with the West Indies.

For them the start of a recovery under Lara's captaincy has been made, but it is strictly a qualified success. It was based on the supremacy of two fast bowlers aged 34 (Ambrose) and 35 (Walsh) operating for the most part in helpful conditions. Ambrose made a magnificent comeback after his barren tour of Pakistan. Far too much notice was taken of that at the time, however. Few overseas fast bowlers have shone in Pakistan: Dennis Lillee, perhaps the best of them all, took three for 303 in his only series there, in 1979.

THERE are sufficient young bowlers - Rose, Dillon, McLean, Ramnarine, McGarrell especially - for Lara to build upon his success in his first series as captain, success to which his own delightful batting contributed crucially. He still has class players around him but the Test side seriously lack batting reserves.

The West Indies board have begun a belated campaign to drum up greater enthusiasm among schoolboys and to market the game more professionally. As always here, everything was left until the last moment (or just afterwards) but everywhere there were better facilities at the Test grounds this season. With the Viv Richards Pavilion and the Andy Roberts and Richie Richardson Stands already in place, and the Ambrose Stand surely to follow when finally he decides to retire, there was a constant reminder to the largest crowd to watch a Test in St John's over the last week of all that Antigua has contributed to West Indian cricket in the last 20 years.

But cricket here still has many problems. A recent detailed survey of the sporting preferences of young males aged 11-20 in Antigua and Barbuda showed that basketball is more than twice as popular as cricket; 37 per cent called basketball their 'first preference' sport, 25 per cent soccer, only 15 per cent cricket. The absolute priority in every cricketing country in the Caribbean should be to get more overseas cricket on to television to win back the ground from American basketball.

England's priorities at the end of the series are the opposite of West Indies': their strength is batting, their weakness, for all the marvellous return of Angus Fraser, bowling. Ramprakash's arrival as a fully fledged Test batsman made up for the disappointing fact that neither John Crawley nor Mark Butcher could establish himself at number three.

There may yet be a way back to Test cricket for Graeme Hick, who with Dominic Cork was one of two high-class cricketers ignored by the selectors for this tour. Crawley is a class player too, however, and once he learns to relax on the big occasion he will, like Ramprakash, prove it.

The main campaign, and with it the Atherton era, has ended in tears, but it is not all bad news. At least until the West Indies board/Cable and Wireless party last week, so unwisely cold-shouldered by management and players, England's public relations have improved. Little touches like presenting the Everest Club in Guyana with a framed copy of the scoreboard of the first international match played on the ground were greatly appreciated locally. Moreover, some of the fringe players, especially Hollioake and Robert Croft, are naturally good tourists who have clearly enjoyed their interaction with the Caribbean public.

Modern cricket tours are an unrelenting grind, but that makes a positive approach all the more important. It is as well there are fresh players in Barbados now to give a new impetus to the one-day phase of the tour.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 26 Mar1998 - 12:56