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England come up with same old talk for same old result

By Mark Nicholas

10 April 1998

IT is an unfortunate fact that England's record after their largely unsatisfactory tour of the Caribbean is no better than it was four years ago, when the gulf between the sides was far greater than it is now. Then, in 1994, the Test series was lost 3-1 and the one-day series 4-1; now, after the hiding in Trinidad, nothing has changed. The personnel have been similar for the main part, the results the same.

It is another fact that the West Indies have more natural cricketers than England and that their great players, Brian Lara and Curtly Ambrose, and their pretty darn good ones, Courtney Walsh and Carl Hooper, are more likely than any of the English players to win matches of their own accord. To be at their best, England must play collectively and cannot afford to relax concentration. The West Indies can drift off for a session and be rescued by something out of the ordinary.

The third fact to consider when reviewing the tour, and it is offered in mitigation rather than excuse, is that England lost the toss in Guyana and Antigua when conditions really were one-sided - if not quite unfair, then certainly they were unkind - and that their cricket in Barbados was outstanding and deserved better than rain throughout the last day, which denied it the chance of reward.

Having said that, opportunities must be taken when they are offered and England missed their golden chance in the first Trinidad Test when the West Indies should not have been able to make 282 to win the match, while the West Indians were typically ruthless once on the scent of victory.

Ambrose, in the fourth innings in Guyana, and Walsh in those dramatic embers of the Antigua Test, were irresistible to bat against and at the same time compulsive to watch for there was not callous intimidation, just hostile and extraordinarily accurate and memorable fast bowling.

England have won two short overseas series in the 1990s, both against New Zealand, and remain the same style of team that they were when Graham Gooch became captain for the 1990 tour here.

The talk is always about being tougher or harder to beat or more uncompromising. Though well meant, this is narrow and ensures that the players dig trenches filled by gritted teeth and the give-nothing-away ethic, to either friend or foe, lest it exposes their insecurity.

Suspicion lingers in the air fuelling insularity and preventing self-expression and so the cricket, which is enormously promising at times, can never quite go all the way. It has not been a surprise that some of England's most impressive cricket has been with either Darren Gough or Dominic Cork in the team.

In late January, it seemed as if this team would be the most likely of the decade to claim victory. The players appear to have an air of reality about them, which was mixed with a quiet confidence rather than the laddish, noisy thing of previous tours. But the old cracks appeared as the self-possessed were denied and the more fragile characters were put to the sword.

The truth is that for all Michael Atherton's determination that the English team should be as one they are not, not quite. They are bred by a county system of salaries, contracts and testimonials that does not allow them to be because it does not encourage freedom of spirit or joy of heart.

There is no getting away from the fact that when England are up against Australia, or South Africa say, they are up against 11 men who value the life the game gives them and who truly would spit blood for each other. England just miss on that count and in the end it tells in their performance.

This is highlighted abroad when adaptability, along not uncoincidentally with creature comfort, is missing; and where the slippery slope or failure has its steepest gradient there have been some famous fightbacks, Barbados and Adelaide most memorably, but they are misleadingly seductive and confuse the overall picture.

The final fact is that domestic cricket in England is up the wrong alley. It is administered by people whose answer to a newly composed county structure is to drop one limited-over competition and reward the top nine teams in the four-day championship with a place in another one-day tournament called the Super Cup. This is absurd.

Lord MacLaurin tried; he presented an opportunity for a rethink on a plate, and the county clubs rejected his leadership. If the details of his proposals were misguided, the principle of his beliefs, which were confirmed by his fact-finding mission among the county's themselves, were not. But he threatened their individual security so they brushed him aside. We must all consider this when we blame the messengers.

Since 1963, when the amateurs were first phased out of the game, England have played 352 Test matches and won only 93. That tells its own story and makes it clear enough that county cricket as we know it today is not the most suitable breeding ground for Test cricketers. It is a closed shop, cosy and self-satisfying, but not representative of the breadth and overall character of the English game, and it shows.

Meanwhile, there were moments and performances in which to rejoice for this was absolutely not a gloomy tour. In fact, it was a happy tour, a happy place and the cricket was riveting. Top of the pile was the cricket of Mark Ramprakash, who has arrived at last, on his own terms. He is five years later than scheduled but his ecstactic reaction upon reaching a hundred in Barbados will always live with those who saw it, as will his exemplary, inspired batting in Guyana when the pitch and the bowlers using it were mighty difficult to repel.

Not far behind him are Alec Stewart and Angus Fraser, the men of the tour. Unusual vignettes from both illustrated the excellence of their cricket: Stewart's nine not out at Sabina Park was maybe the finest nine of all and was an appetiser for his tremendous batting which came in Trinidad; Fraser's innings on the second morning of the first Trinidad Test, when the first ball of the day hit him on the head and when he hung on for 19 minutes more to make 17 in support of Nasser Hussain, pre-empted his marvellous bowling, which should have won the match for his country.

There was Mark Butcher edging his team to nailbiting victory in the second Trinidad Test and the celebrations which followed for the team and for many supporters - a number of whom had been denied in Jamaica. And there was Hussain's defiant, fist-waving hundred in Antigua which earned England a draw . . or so we all thought with just an hour to go until Walsh, typical Walsh, denied an English batsmen the last word . . . or so we thought.

Minutes later, only hours after his 30th birthday, the captain of England for a record number of Test matches resigned. Atherton's was a typically straightforward statement of goodbye but the moment was emotional nonetheless because a good man who gave the job his best shot was admitting he had done all he could, that his race was run.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 10 Apr1998 - 10:33