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England must concentrate on mind games

By Mark Nicholas

13 February 1998

ENGLAND do not start tours well. Fact. Since I began following England around the world there has been a pattern of dismantled hope: Calcutta '93 was humiliating; Jamaica '94 X-certificate stuff; Brisbane '94-95 galling; Pretoria '95-96 promising in fairness but spoiled by rain; Bulawayo '96-97 thrilling in its drama and result, depressing in its after-taste; and now Trinidad '98, which was so, so deflating.

Previously one suspected that England were simply not good enough and that their preponderance of nervy uncertain-looking cricketers were not able to adapt either to environment, media and public pressure, or worst of all, to match situations that asked too much of their limitations.

I believe Michael Atherton knew this and understood that the selectors - of whom he was one - should identify a team of young men who had the stomach for everything that is part of being a successful Test cricketer and should stick with them.

The team who were in the Caribbean in 1994 were that set of soldiers, but the new chairman of selectors, Raymond Illingworth, had other thoughts the next summer and Atherton's long-term plan was scuppered.

By some irony a number of the young players then are there again now and have grown together rather as Atherton hoped they might. Demonstrably this time, England were good enough, only they blew it, which happens - think of Australia at the end of last summer at the Oval - and probably did so because they assumed they would win, because after three-and-a-half innings of the match they thought that they had done enough and therefore relaxed their previously formidable mental application.

This is good and bad. It is bad because it is a flaw which besieges English domestic cricket and becomes a habit which is hard to kick. It is good because England assuming they can beat or have beaten the West Indies is a new thing and indicates the shedding of the submissive skin which grew with West Indian invincibility in the Seventies and Eighties.

In '73-74 England drew the series here because freakishly, Tony Greig took 13 wickets at the Queen's Park Oval with experimental off-cutters. Since then, England have not drawn, let alone won, a series in the Caribbean since 1968 and only then on the back of Sir Garfield Sobers's generous declaration.

Did you know that Ian Botham, during all of his rousing career, only once played in a winning Test against the West Indies? Once! And there was nothing submissive about him.

In the past quarter of a century only one team, Australia, have won a series here at all.

The point of all this is to emphasise that to win in the Caribbean is the toughest task in cricket and that this England team, though not as gifted as others, have the character and desire to do it as long as they retain their shape, their attitude and their unity during dis- appointments such as last weekend.

For The Management to fiddle with the team now would be an invasion of individual confidence.

For the party to reflect too long on unreasonable umpiring lbws galore were refused - would be to return to the old ``chippy'' days of insularity.

To split into groups and whisper in corners about their team-mates not pulling their weight would be self-defeating and probably undermine their essentially excellent spirit.

Sure, only Angus Fraser of the bowlers truly did the business, and sure, the argument for Alex Stewart playing Superman again while Jack Russell makes way for another specialist batsman or bowler is a reasonable one.

It may not be the team I would choose, but it would not be right, not now, not after so much preparation has been invested in it and when that investment was only a held catch or a granted appeal away from victory, to change that team.

No, it is up to the same eleven to learn and to gain strength from last week and to ensure that in future they drive home their advantage applying the same commitment with which they set it up.

When a shocked Adam Hollioake was told by David Graveney that he would not be playing in the first Test against Australia at Edgbaston last summer, rather than feel sorry for himself, he looked Graveney in the eye and said: ``Grav, it's not how far you fall, it's how high you bounce back.''

A sentiment which will do nicely for England today.

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Date-stamped : 13 Feb1998 - 10:26