July 25, 2003

England's dark satanic mills

The Paper Round Paul Coupar

Alec Stewart surrenders as South Africa prick England's ego at Edgbaston

In terms of bad timing, it was up there with the moment Nero reached for a fiddle rather than a firehose. This was the week that the ECB chose to rebrand English cricket. Journalists were sent packs with moody photos of England's young players, and the sort of personal snippets - James Anderson's favoured brand of moisturiser, Matthew Hoggard's recipe tips - ready to cut and paste straight into Just 17 or Cosmopolitan. Women were supposed to be converted in their droves.

Having revealed their feminine side, the boys were then to be whipped up into a testosterone-fuelled frenzy on the first morning of the series, with a rousing rendition of `Jerusalem' and a montage of scenes of England glories past.

The hype was huge, the end product negligible. On the first day of the Test against South Africa, England leaked 398 runs for one wicket, the brouhaha deflated like a punctured beach-ball and England's sportswriters needed no invitation to shine a spotlight into the reality gap.

Martin Johnson in The Telegraph wondered what was going off out there. "This Jerusalem business, according to an npower-sponsored media release, sprang from the `long held belief that Test matches needed that sense of international occasion'. Who comes up with this stuff? More likely it sprang from a boardroom meeting which began with the words: "Anyone got a gimmick?"

"And was the Holy Lamb of God, on England's pleasant pastures seen?", he asked, warming to his theme. "Well, no one in the media box saw him, though the bloke hailing a cab on the Pershore Road wearing a false beard and dark glasses did bear a mild resemblance to the chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board. `Taxi? Tim Lamb here. Bring me your chariot of fire, and get me out of here.'"

Meanwhile Stephen Bierley was dazzling readers of the The Guardian with his knowledge of 20th century literature. "The good folk of Birmingham were totally underwhelmed by the attempt to link William Blake's `Jerusalem' with their national team. However, if anybody could quickly dream up a tune for TS Eliot 's `Waste Land', it might catch on by the end of this match."

The Times quietly shook its head. "The gentle buzz of people talking among themselves, then pausing to concentrate as the bowler approaches, and perhaps gasp at a daring stroke, creates an atmosphere on its own," insisted Richard Hobson.

And amid it all Oliver Holt thought he had spotted the man responsible for the party falling flat - Nasser Hussain.

"As South Africa openers Graeme Smith and Herschelle Gibbs smashed record after record," he wrote in The Mirror, "all the optimism built up by Vaughan and Co. in the NatWest Series deflated as mournfully as a whoopee cushion under the weight of a fat man. The selectors should give Vaughan the job while the momentum is with him. It is time for them to seize the moment."