June 26, 2007

Same old blues

England's unconvincing clear-out in one-day cricket

'Collingwood is a star only as a fielder' © Getty Images
If ever a team needed to start doing things differently, it's the England one-day team. They have never won a major trophy. They have just had their fourth dismal World Cup in a row. Things were so bad in the winter, with the Test as well as the one-day team, that an independent review was commissioned. It recommended sweeping changes in attitude and approach. So what has happened, now that England are returning to one-day cricket?

On the surface, plenty. They have a new coach and a new captain (one called Peter, one called Paul). They have brought in several new faces, and hinted that they will ditch the slow-start policy with which Michael Vaughan baffled everyone in the World Cup.

Under the surface, very little has happened. The selectors have pulled the oldest trick in the book: the shallow clear-out. It's a way of fooling the media into thinking that things have changed more than they really have. The rules of the clear-out are believed to be listed in a little book handed down by one chairman of selectors to another. The rules say:

1 Retain most of the central figures in the team, while making a ritual sacrifice of one or two, preferably including the captain.

2 Before announcing the new captain, do some selective leaking to the papers, so that your favoured candidate seems to have a tide of opinion carrying him into the job. Don't discourage the mooting of other candidates; just make sure they are utterly implausible.

3 Tinker with the fringe members of the squad, often reversing changes you made a few months earlier.

4 Throw in a couple of debutants. Ideally one of them will have been knocking at the door for some time, while the other will be totally unfancied. One should have been advocated by a leading Australian star, and the other should have grown up in South Africa.

5 Allow success in Tests to come into the equation, because then you can pick players who have the aura of recent success about them, even if it's irrelevant.

6 Whatever you do, don't resign. That would imply that you are in some way responsible for the poor results over which you have consistently presided.

So Matt Prior, Ryan Sidebottom and Alastair Cook all get the call, even though their success in the past month has come in Tests and against a feeble West Indian team. Mike Yardy replaces Jamie Dalrymple, although they have been much of a muchness so far, and Owais Shah leapfrogs Ed Joyce (now that's a more promising decision, as Shah wins more one-day matches for Middlesex than Joyce does). And there are first call-ups for Jonathan Trott, who grew up in Cape Town, and Dimitri Mascarenhas, who is a friend of Shane Warne and has a hint of an Aussie accent from his schooldays in Perth.

Paul Collingwood's supposed rivals for the captaincy were Kevin Pietersen and Vikram Solanki. Pietersen is way too valuable as England's only match-winning batsman to have the captaincy thrust upon him as well, and although unlikely characters can make good captains KP's public pronouncements suggest a man who is not yet in touch with his inner Brearley. Solanki, who has a supple mind to match his wrists, could become a contender, but needs to win something first.

So Collingwood really didn't have any opposition. Andrew Strauss should have been a strong candidate - he drew a one-day series against Pakistan last year with a depleted squad, and the team got worse the minute he handed it over - but again Test form was invoked when it was of dubious relevance. Collingwood has become England's fourth captain this year without anyone noticing. And David Graveney was allowed to get away with calling him "an ideal candidate".

This one remark offers a glimpse of the deep denial that England are in. Collingwood has lots of strengths. He is a player who is more like a coach, always squeezing a bit more out of his own abilities, and if he can do that with others as well, he will be a good captain. But no way is he an ideal candidate.

Ideal would mean two things: a proven captain and a star player. Collingwood is a star only as a fielder: he has a strike rate of 73 and an average of 34, he hits a hundred every 30 games, and his average tumbles to 29 if you discount Bangladesh and the other small fry. He is more of a Hick than a Fairbrother, never mind a Michael Bevan. And he has hardly any captaincy experience. Like the young fast bowlers in Duncan Fletcher's time, he will be using the England team as a finishing school.

He's not the wrong choice, but neither is he the answer to many of England's problems. One of these is that the selectors continue to approach the one-day game with woolly heads. They ignored Marcus Trescothick last week, when they need his experience and a few one-dayers are the obvious form of rehab. They again picked the same squad for 50 overs and for Twenty20, failing to spot that they are different games. And they picked yet another one-day line-up so undaunting that several counties would expect to beat it. England should see off West Indies, but the planning for the next World Cup, which Ken Schofield's review said should be a top priority, is already looking like the same old muddle.

Tim de Lisle is a former editor of Wisden and now edits www.timdelisle.com