June 28, 2008

What is wrong with the English?

At no point in the last 50 years has the country that invented the game stood at the top of the rankings. They have only themselves to blame

Kevin Pietersen takes over the reins from Paul Collingwood: an indictment of the English cricket system © Getty Images

Kevin Pietersen's nomination as captain of the England side confirms that the game in the land of its origin has come to a pretty pass.

Nothing wrong with the appointment itself. Although he tends to ruffle fluffy English feathers - a custom founded more upon an indiscreet tongue than anything he has actually done - Pietersen knows enough about the game and the requirements of leadership to give a satisfactory account of himself. For several years he enjoyed the informative experience of playing under Shane Warne, as astute on the field as he can be reckless off it. Significantly, Pietersen moved to Hampshire precisely because he wanted to expose himself to the ways of great sporting minds. He wanted to understand and replicate the process. As far as he was concerned the rest was up to him. His choice has been amply justified both in his own career and by the inspiring captaincy the Australian has provided both in the Southern regions of England and in the hotter parts of India.

No, the point is not that England has made a foolish choice. Quite the opposite. Nor does the selection reflect all that badly on the mother country itself, as opposed to its cricketing wing. To the contrary, it indicates an ability to embrace characters of all sorts, including a loud young man blessed with more charisma than charm, who played a handful of games for his school team in Pietermaritzburg before, like a latter-day Tom Thumb, starting to climb his ladder. He kept rising till he ended up among the angels themselves, whereupon he knew that he had reached his destination. South Africans have been waiting for their prodigal son to fall but he has only stumbled.

That England has promoted the right man, though, ought to provoke introspection among the thousands of locally born and bred patriots working within the game. Actually they should have been scratching their heads for several decades. Considering the amount of money hurled at the game, and the number of coaches and advisors and psychologists and dieticians and schemes unveiled, and the attention England devotes to the game, this inability to produce a candidate from the homegrown ranks is embarrassing. For that matter the team's failure to subdue a compromised New Zealand team suggests that most of the money has been wasted. But then it has been a long time since England was able to look down on its rivals. At no point in the last 50 years has the country that invented the game and claimed ownership of it for so long stood at the top of the rankings. Instead England has celebrated occasional victories, mistaking them for transforming events. It is a state of mind.

Doubtless bad weather has played a part in this underperformance, but these inescapable truths require an explanation. Or at any rate something more impressive than a lot of lame talk about structures and so forth. It's not always the system's fault. Sometimes the people themselves must take the blame. If the thinking is awry, more money and more schemes are a waste of time. They only lead to more false dawns and excuses and then the cycle resumes. England needs to focus not so much on plans and more upon character - most especially upon its development.

They can begin by raising their sights. No more wild celebrations every time the Indians are beaten or the Sri Lankans put in their place. Instead, arrange a party and get back to work. England ought to expect itself to dominate the game, with Australia as its main challenger owing to that country's singularity of thought and firm pitches. After all it is possible to achieve greatness, a point conclusively proven by their current captain (and though Paul Collingwood, whose place he has taken, lacks greatness, he has surpassed his assumed capabilities thanks to immense determination, an outlook instilled by a factory-working father).

If the thinking is awry, more money and more schemes are a waste of time. They only lead to more false dawns and excuses and then the cycle resumes. England needs to focus not so much on plans and more upon character - most especially upon its development

Pietersen is the product of new, opportunistic England and Collingwood belongs to the days when players emerged either from rigorous private schools relied upon to reinforce class in every area, or from the working classes with their desire and hard won skill. At its best, England blended ruthlessness and pragmatism. Only in the aftermath of the two World Wars has England been compromised, and then it was scarcely alone. Nevertheless it could hardly expect to beat the Australians in these periods. Otherwise it has only had itself to blame for its inability to reach the top. And it is getting worse.

Apart from the Australians, none of the other countries has such opportunities to shine. Most have been bogged down by poor governance, internal conflicts, poverty, historical complications and various other handicaps. Sri Lanka has a small population, a weak infrastructure, and civil strife. Pakistan has a feudal system, troubled borders, and a national religion. Zimbabwe's inefficiencies have been documented, South Africa is trying to build a just society without destroying its inheritance, West Indies does not exist and is therefore vulnerable to numerous forces, New Zealand is a small rugby-playing country with limited resources at its disposal, Bangladeshis have enough on their plate surviving day upon day, and the sleeping tiger of India has only just stirred itself.

England ought to be near the top of the rankings all the time and at the top some of the time. Doubtless the system is faulty but it did produce Len Hutton and Ken Barrington and Fred Trueman, masters one and all. Steps have been taken to improve the domestic game. Doubtless the introduction of two divisions has helped, while the idea of creating regional teams to compete at a level close to Test cricket has much to commend it. But these innovations merely scratch the surface. England's problems go much deeper, into the heart of the old nation with its tiredness, into the schools with their softness, into the past with its stubbornness, into the present with its lack of conviction.

England's failure to produce players is proven. Fortunes are paid out to local coaches and still the counties lean heavily on foreigners signed under Kolpak or else as overseas players. Some teams contain more imports than a computer shop. Most of them come from South Africa or Australia. And that begs the question: why do these players score more runs and take more wickets than their local counterparts? They have only two arms and two legs.

Confidence and calibre are factors. These blokes can really play. But how to explain that? It's not that the game has never been played well in the green and pleasant land.

Unavoidably, the main difference lies between the ears. Patently it is a state of mind, a point Englishmen are extraordinarily loath to accept, especially from an expatriate long since gone native. Attitudes towards the game and life itself make enough of a difference to persuade ambitious counties to hire foreign coaches, soccer teams to seek overseas, or Celtic managers and cricket selectors to give the stripes to imports. At its best, England relied on men from the extremes. East Enders and modern educators are poorly placed to produce players capable of defying Glenn McGrath. In the end it is all about national culture.

England has produced bonafide legends like Trueman in the past, but they aren't doing so anymore © The Cricketer International

Actually England's production line of players is even less successful than it seems. Amongst the current players, Monty Panesar was raised in Northampton (everyone has to be brought up somewhere) but as a Sikh he has a strong second identity. Kevin Pietersen hails from Kwa-Zulu Natal, Tim Ambrose is an Australian, and therefore a fierce competitor, and Andrew Strauss is another South African whose family moved to England in his early days. For that matter Owais Shah and Ravi Bopara retained close ties with their communities.

It is the formative years that count. Dismayed by local education, particularly scruffiness and disrespect shown towards elders, numerous African settler families send their offspring to boarding schools in Tanzania, Uganda and elsewhere. African sportsmen dominate European soccer and athletics, whereupon people point towards extra ability - a patronising outlook that provides a feeble excuse for local failures.

And it goes further. Not all emerging players who first saw the light of day on English soil and amongst Anglo-Saxons are genuine products of the system. Some of them came from established cricketing families. Ryan Sidebottom's dad was a red haired medium-pacer of fierce disposition (this may be tautological). Stuart Broad's progenitor was an upright left-hander often called upon to open the innings for his country. Chris Tremlett's father could land his seamers on one of the threepenny bits that existed in those days. These fellows learnt a lot about cricket in their living rooms. There is nothing stopping Englishmen rising except their raising.

In short, English cricket is to a disconcerting degree sustained by players reared outside an expensive system. Therefore the system is deeply flawed. Most of those raised within its framework have had strong outside forces. Evidently the status quo does not address the real problem, namely indulgence, and therefore cannot produce enough properly trained players to take on the world. During the last Ashes tour the parents of an England batsman spent an entire flight moaning about how little their son was paid compared to the vastly superior and more deserving Australians. It is a question of outlook.

England has an abundance of resources and ability. Both are wasted. Until this uncomfortable truth is faced, until this weakness is corrected, every surge will peter out. Meanwhile England will be sustained by sons, immigrant communities (amongst whom the black Africans have underperformed) and a core of highly motivated locals eager to give more than they take and brave enough to pursue their gift to its furthest point.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • David on July 1, 2008, 1:18 GMT

    I've always enjoyed Peter Roebuck's writings. However to talk about England's failings in the context of "the heart of the old nation with its tiredness, the schools with their softness, the past with its stubbornness, the present with its lack of conviction" is to hide the shortcomings of their cricket system. The reason I say this is that despite the failing of a number their other high profile sporting teams, they still manage to be up near the top of the tree in a number of Olympic sports, most notably but not limited to rowing and track cycling. England (and Great Britain for that matter) have World Champions (both male & female) in what are seriously tough and demanding sports. If English cricket needs an attitude transplant they need only look outside their back door and see what these sports (from the administrators through the elite athletes to the grass roots) achieve in England and on the greater world stage. If they are honest with themselves, they would not be so precious.

  • Sridhar on June 30, 2008, 10:30 GMT

    Peter Roebuck has been extremely gratuitous in classifying Bangladesh as hand to mouth, Pakistan Islamics and West Indies as being non existent. While I'm happy that he has been kind to India, it does not take away the same malaise with England. Scotland and Northern Ireland are independent countries when it comes to many a sporting event. So more than the stolid (some may some boring) English attitude to cricket, there are a few other reasons for England's poor showing. for one, there is an extremely small population pool. Second, there is so much of this county mishmash that many mediocre players make the grade. Third, the whole attitude of aging cricketers like bad wine before getting them to debut. Fourthly, Cricket lags behind Football, Rugby and possibly even angling and quizzing, when it comes to sport. So Roebuck is only partially correct, when he blames the English attitude. And no being a factory worker's son has nothing to do with determination.

  • Campbell on June 30, 2008, 5:55 GMT

    Vass. I'm not sure how you can say a population size makes no difference? It is a massive help when you have more people in your country. Simply due to the fact that the more people you have in your country, the more people there will be that possibly choose to play cricket? And out of that larger number, you will have a better chance of finding cricketers with natural talent to be harnessed? If you compare the amount of kids who will play cricket in England as opposed to New Zealand, the numbers will far outweigh the NZ numbers. Probability at least shows that there is a better chance of talent being discovered in England. Therefore they should be a top team easily.

  • Ramesh on June 30, 2008, 5:51 GMT

    England's problem is in not mastering the ground rules of the game. The beauty of cricket is in mastering varying conditions-pitch, players' injuries, poor umpiring, traveling different countries, developing back-ups, strong passion to win, focus on results etc. England is inadequate on all the above things- they will see ghosts in pitch, they will constantly live in "what if and only if" if some key players are injured and not move on, they will find fault in conditions when they travel, no focus on results & lack of passion when they are playing countries other than Australia, strange behavior of not accepting reality and work towards wins etc. Very surprisingly, the English media reflects some of these behavior as well. England has quality players and they will start winning big time only if they can start mastering some of these conditions.

  • David on June 30, 2008, 5:39 GMT

    So it seems the best idea for England is to try and get their players to play like Aussies. How do they achieve this?? Make their players of promise play in the Pura Cup in Australia. Not too many players - say their 10-15 best players under 30 years old and get them to mingle with the 'mentality masters' of cricket - Aussie cricketers. Then hopefully some of that will rub off onto them for the future.

  • John on June 30, 2008, 2:23 GMT

    Given that South Africa had then started their sporting isolation, surely England were on top at least between the 1970/71 and 1972 Ashes series? Arguably also on top in 1978/9 when the West Indies and Australian Packer players were barred from Tests.

  • Kap on June 30, 2008, 0:31 GMT

    Guys........I always wondered why people compare the size of a country's population to describe its potential to win a game. After all each sport/game has a limited number of team members and population is a matter of concern only if it falls below the number required to make up a team. Cricket can only be played a team of eleven......full stop.

  • Jon on June 29, 2008, 21:24 GMT

    The size of the population and the economic and social structure of the country in question matter relatively little; it is the desire to succeed that is the key. This doesn't even apply to cricket, the football team couldn't even qualify for Euro 2008. In tennis our hopes in the past rested on Tim Henman, who never looked like he had the burning desire to be out there. The one sport we can actually compete in is rugby, and that is because we have 15 men who are willing pour every ounce of effort into every game and not care how mangled they get. The longer England hang onto "it's the taking part that counts," and as "as long as you tried your best" the longer we will underachieve. Every academy, school and scheme in the country needs to instill right from day 1 that the drive, desire and passion to succeed is paramount. Mr Roebuck is right when he says the difference is "between the ears," but that does not go far enough to explain how big a factor it is.

  • Shailendra on June 29, 2008, 20:00 GMT

    Mr Roebuck's arguments are right to only a certain extent. A well written article must be said. And to those who are getting defensive, Mr Roesbuck has at no stage suggested that palyers from migrant communities are not British.

    Also to those who are moaning about 'main' sport in England being football, please give us break. England did not even manage to qualify for the Euro 2008. And apart from 1966, has never achieved anything significant in football or 'main' sport. Even in football the million pound salaries has not been enough to bring a World Cup or Euro trophy.

    England may be inventing the sports but never they have dominated any. With so much money and infrastructure in place, its amazing how no English player is at the top of any sport.

  • John on June 29, 2008, 19:40 GMT

    It is simply not true that England have not been the world's top team during the past 50 years. Between 1968 and 1971, they had a run of 26 Test matches when they were unbeaten, and won the Ashes in Australia. So, the statsitics suggest that, around 1970, England were the top team in the world...

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