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Portrait of a shameful defeat

By Donald Trelford

23 June 1998

PERSONALLY, I blame Tony Blair and New Labour for England's humiliation at Lord's. I knew it would bode ill when the portrait of W G Grace was recently ejected from 10 Downing Street, where John Major had placed it lovingly over the fireplace.

I didn't expect Blair himself to know that it was a big Grace anniversary next month, the 150th anniversary of his birth. The man went to school in Scotland, after all, as did his Chancellor and Foreign Secretary. But I would have thought a Sir Humphrey might have appeared to say, 'No, Prime Minister'.

Cricket seems to have no place in Cool Britannia. Tony Banks, the Sports Minister, probably regards it as a stuck-up game for elitist gits. The days are long gone since a Labour Prime Minister, Clem Attlee, used to scour the Downing Street telex sheets for the latest scores.

Whatever their achievements as Sports Minister, two recent Conservative ones, Peter Brook and Iain Sproat, had a genuine love of cricket and a profound knowledge of its inner mysteries. Sproat writes books on the game and Brook once gave me a cricket poser for this column: which Gloucestershire player won the most international caps? (No, the answer was not W G or even Wally Hammond, but the former Australian captain, Allan Border).

I doubt if New Labour luminaries will be sending me trick questions on cricket or taking time off to appear at the game's headquarters to open new stands or just soak up the atmosphere. I was thinking this at Lord's as Prince Philip opened the impressive new grandstand - which I see is now being blamed for our defeat by affecting the ground's atmosphere in a way that helped the South Africans to swing the ball.

I was also thinking of the day when I heard the acting president of MCC (no names, no red faces) point from the committee room window and ask Prince Philip: 'Have you seen our new Mound Stand, Sir?' 'Seen it?', replied the Duke, 'I only bloody opened it, didn't I?'

If it wasn't W G's revenge or the new grandstand that did for us at Lord's, what was it then? Some England players, I see, regard the ground as unfriendly to cricketers, which reflects badly on the hosts, the MCC, and provides yet another reason why its days as a Test match venue might be numbered - in addition to the risk mentioned of being punished by the England Cricket Board for failing to admit women as members.

The best reason of all for leaving Lord's is that we play so badly there. There is also the slope. If we are tough on the West Indies for their pitch preparation, are we not open to the counter-charge that there is no room in modern cricket for a ground that slopes about eight feet from one side to the other?

It can be argued that good players can take clever advantage of it, as Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock did for South Africa. But is it not a needless additional hazard for batsmen, who face enough danger already from a hard missile bearing down on them at over 80 miles an hour?

The main reason we lost is that Donald, abetted here by Pollock and assisted by the conditions, is the best fast bowler in the world and made the essential difference between two fairly well-matched teams. There is no shame, in itself, in losing to a better team.

But the manner of our defeat was pretty shameful. The psychological collapse, as in Antigua on the recent tour, cannot be excused. What a shameful contrast to the gutsy fightback by Jonty Rhodes and Hansie Cronje from being 46 for four.

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Date-stamped : 23 Jun1998 - 05:34