Mike Holmans September 11, 2009

How do you define "class"?

What it then amounts to is class prejudice: the selectors favour those who bat like aristocrats rather than artisans – and snobbery is a recipe for decadent failure.

Michael Jeh's piece about the number of talented-looking players who appear for England but fail to produce the goods when things get difficult is timely, since those he mentions have all just been granted contracts by the ECB for the coming year.

Not that Ian Bell and Ravi Bopara are actually failures. They have each scored a healthy number of Test hundreds. Yes, they have been against West Indies, New Zealand, a Pakistan side depleted by injury and player bans or a South Africa who were bowling very poorly on a flat track, but they were in Test matches all the same. They have only failed against the very best, but there are plenty of those from everywhere. (Owais Shah is in a different category: I have long thought of him as Owaste of Space at the international level.)

I don't think it's because the standard of domestic cricket is too low. Most of the Division One counties could give New Zealand a pretty good game, and Durham have a better bowling attack - or at least had, depending on how much difference the return of Shane Bond makes. Demanding that the county championship be of a higher standard than the Test cricket played by the bottom half of the rankings table (where England reside anyway) is surely over-optimistic.

Nor are Australia immune. Phil Hughes succeeded majestically in Sheffield Shield, county cricket and in Tests against South Africa, who now admit that they bowled badly at him. Then, when he came up against Steve Harmison (for the Lions) and Andrew Flintoff armed with both a plan of bowling fast leg stump throat balls and the ability to execute the plan consistently, he was found wanting. No amount of domestic cricket can entirely prepare you for the very top.

But Fox (Michael Jeh) was talking more about one-day cricket, and there the problem is more likely to be systemic. England have been rubbish at ODIs since the early 1990s no matter who has been picked but their main fault has been that they have so few batsmen able to play the aggressive game. The successful Test batsmen tend not to score fast enough in ODIs so instead they pick domestic strokeplayers who don't know how to graft, at least when under run-rate pressure which requires scoring as well as blocking.

In suggesting that it is a peculiarly English problem, however, Fox has not been paying sufficient attention to the Indian team. How often have Rohit Sharma or Suresh Raina gritted out a match-winning 70 in testing conditions?

The old adage says that form is temporary and class is permanent. It may well be that that is true, but only if you correctly define “class”.

Both England and India have selectors who define class as elegant technique and great timing, and believe that players possessing them are more likely to succeed than batsmen who look to be struggling. I can understand that: when I watch a county game, the batsman who plays beautifully is far more likely to catch my eye. I learn to appreciate batsmen who play solidly for the counties I follow much earlier than those I see only occasionally for an opposition.

An Australian selector going to watch a domestic game has fewer matches to choose from than his English or Indian counterpart. He will inevitably see players more often and notice much earlier that the same ugly bloke keeps getting 75 while the fancy dans get out for 3 against the better bowlers at least as often as they glide to 123 in less challenging circumstances. Such a selector may well acquire a different definition of class.

Where having large numbers of teams may hurt both England and India could lie less in lowering the standard of play than in preventing any given selector seeing enough of the unattractive players to tell the Allan Borders from the genuinely incompetent. What it then amounts to is class prejudice: the selectors favour those who bat like aristocrats rather than artisans – and snobbery is a recipe for decadent failure.