July 30, 2008

The case of the empty cupboard

England are gravely short of depth, and the debate over qualification criteria is making the issue more vexed

England will look to Vaughan to lead a fightback and re-establish his authority with an innings of substance © Getty Images

I shall be at Horsham this week whilst England will hope to be starting the process of defeating South Africa, who are missing Dale Steyn but assisted instead by an eager Andre Nel. The superior team won at Headingley but it will be a surprise if Michael Vaughan does not take his opportunity to lead a personal and team fightback that would set up a potentially thrilling decider at The Oval.

Those of us keeping an eye on things from a distance can reflect in relative peace on weightier events elsewhere. Two things in particular need careful monitoring. The first of them, the latest twists in the high-octane drama of Twenty20 politics - the Champions this and the Champions that, or Giles this and Lalit that - may be left to others for the moment. From the English perspective, however, this is a crucial time both for an international squad swimming with wealth and for the dwindling pool of England-qualified journeymen labouring to join them from county cricket.

The controversial selection of Darren Pattinson at Leeds, and England's thorough trouncing, brought the relationship between the two groups into question once more. It needs to be reiterated that England lost not because Ryan Sidebottom was unfit, nor because the inclusion of both Pattinson and Andrew Flintoff inevitably altered the chemistry of the team. They lost primarily because they batted without the necessary discipline in the first innings.

Vaughan is good at deceiving himself about his personal ability to attract unplayable balls and he, especially, following three rather isolated hundreds in 30 innings since his post-Ashes return last year, needs a major innings this weekend to re-establish his authority. He has done it before, notably at Old Trafford in 2005 and at Headingley in 2007.

For any team, success in cricket requires a subtle alloy of several ingredients, of which good leadership is one. The others include talented batsmen, bowlers, fielders and wicketkeepers, naturally. Less obvious essentials are luck, total commitment to the team above the individual, hard work and practice, concentration on the needs of the moment, and focus on team success rather than the individual rewards that success will bring.

Remembering all this may yet bring England back into the current tough Test series with South Africa and on towards a winning series in India in the winter, surely the next essential step towards revenge for their utter humiliation at the hands of what, admittedly, was a genuinely great Australia side in 2006-07. But two uncomfortable truths were fully exposed at Headingley: one, the failure of application in the batting, the other a matter of selection policy that reflected weakness in the governance of the English game.

On the field England are gravely short of depth when it comes to two of the essential playing departments. There is a dearth both of top-class batsmen and of spinners, so that a consistently inconsistent top six lacks sufficient challenge from beneath; and there is no serious left-arm spin bowling alternative to Monty Panesar. Graeme Swann or James Tredwell would presumably be next in line if Panesar were to injure himself on the eve of a Test match, but neither is likely to be a match-winner except on a genuine spinner's pitch. Adil Rashid has struggled, generally speaking, this season, and the only young offspinner of special talent is Ollie Rayner, whose chance has come at last because of Saqlain Mushtaq's return to Surrey and Mushtaq Ahmed's knee injuries.

Rayner, six-foot-five, and a useful batsman too, will be a key figure, no doubt, in Sussex's match against Somerset at Horsham but his recent success, like Pattinson's selection, has reopened the debate about qualification rules. Reasonable defence of a national sport's interests should have allowed the ECB to impose restraints on the number of overseas-bred players in cricket that would have stood the test of European law. Now that the Cotonou Agreement has been interpreted by the EU, under French presidency, as applying to the trade of goods and services rather than labour, it remains to be seen with what resolve the board will force the hand of counties to stop the inflow of cricketers from overseas. At the moment they are getting wholly different signals from their leaders because of the obsession with Twenty20.

Two uncomfortable truths were fully exposed at Headingley: one, the failure of application in the batting, the other a matter of selection policy that reflected weakness in the governance of the English game

It was inevitable that the abundance of overseas-bred players in county cricket would lead sooner or later to a controversial selection. Arguments about who should be eligible for which country are never simple, especially in the cosmopolitan country that Britain has become. If the Nawab of Pataudi, Ranjitsinhji, WL Murdoch (Australia's first great batsman, for heaven's sake!), Tony Greig, Graeme Hick and Kevin Pietersen have all played for England after learning their cricket elsewhere, the Grimsby-born son of British parents had every right to play at Headingley.

Pattinson's selection was nonetheless bizarre, based as it was on the evidence of six first-class games in England and bowling success gained mainly on a ground where a total of 280 has been passed only twice all season. Of his 29 wickets for Notts before his promotion, the bulk - 17 at 12 runs each - had come at Trent Bridge. He surely had to be more exceptional than he is to justify an instant promotion ahead of Harmison, Matthew Hoggard, Simon Jones, and the regular bridesmaid, Chris Tremlett. If they wanted a Headingley "type" it should have been Alan Richardson, an equally obscure cricketer to most but always a reliable bowler when he is fit.

At least Geoff Miller had a long list of possible fast bowlers. The batting cupboard is barer, but if the top six should fail again at Edgbaston, Owais Shah, Ravi Bopara, the always underrated David Sales, the South Africa-bred Jonathan Trott, and the Kent openers, Robert Key and Joe Denly, probably head the queue in view of Michael Carberry's disappointing season.

As usual in the crowded home season, the public will be spoilt for choice this week. If the weather is as it has recently been, one can predict with confidence that Horsham's beautiful ground in West Sussex, celebrating the 100th anniversary of County Championship cricket on the site, will be as full to its capacity as Edgbaston will be, and as the Rose Bowl was for Middlesex's Twenty20 triumph last Sunday.

Christopher Martin-Jenkins has been a leading cricket broadcaster, journalist and author for almost four decades, during which time he has served as a cricket correspondent for the BBC, the Daily Telegraph and the Times

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Gary on August 1, 2008, 20:27 GMT

    Ollie Rayner a special talent dream on, his chances of first team cricket will be gone when Mushtaq returns from injury.

  • George on August 1, 2008, 19:01 GMT

    And this is why you don't just like cricket, but become obsessed. The game can make a fool out of you in an afternoon and god bless it for that. The ebb and flow of heroism, faliure and redemption is what keeps us coming back. Gutsy pugnacious brilliance from Mr Collingwood. Couldn't have happened to a nicer bloke.

  • Les on August 1, 2008, 18:30 GMT

    As per my earlier comments the batting, we can now see after the 3rd days play in the SA Test match is the strength of the England team. Collingwood has come good because he is a class player. As is Vaughan, who will also come good. It pays to remember that class is permanent, form is temporary.Now it is up to the bowlers to win the Test match and therein lies the problem.Flintoff will do his bit and lets hope the wicket turns for Monty. The others are not up to scratch.

    Also the English cricket journalists need to get out of the bar and start working for their keep by properly analysing the game and being positive about England's play rather than be lazy and look for the easy story. It would also be a good idea if all the selectors turned up each days play.

  • Les on August 1, 2008, 14:14 GMT

    Another one for the friendless English batsmen. Not one of SA batsmen averages above 40 in Test v Aust who are the benchmark. For England there are Pieterson +50,Vaughan +40 and guess who? Collinwood +40. The Aussies stick with theirs when they are experiencing a lean trot. England discard theirs but hang onto bowlers who are continuously getting hammered and only perform agains NZ or a weak WI team. Not sure what game the selectors are watching. They must get their info from the morning papers over a cup of tea with comments like "Jimmy picked a few wickets again" with out looking deeper into the stats to discover they are mostly tail enders. Even his county record does not stack up. Check out his strike rate!

  • Les on July 31, 2008, 17:35 GMT

    The English selectors,coach and commentators seem to be on the wrong track about England's problems. It's the bowlers who are the problem.Think about it. Not one of them averages less than 30 per wicket. The batsmen can refer to their 40plus averages.

    This test series is a real test not like NZ where all were fooled by the bowlers performance against an ordinary batting line up. Here they face a real test and what have they achieved. In the First Test after the batsmen set the game up the bowlers struggled. Same in the 2nd Test and again here. Apart from Flintoff the others should be retired. Bring back Harmison,Jones and Kabir Ali into the 12. Get rid of the keeper who has not measured up to this stiffer test,

    England need to make changes, the right ones and fast if they want to have a chance in the Ashes. It's the bowlers stupid!

  • Harry on July 31, 2008, 17:25 GMT

    A good article but a point worth raising in the context of overseas players is the number of them. Many county sides now have 5, 6 or even more playing regularly. An argument is that it maintains or raises the quality of the games and young english players benefit from exposure to this level (However, only a handful of places are now available to the locals and the brought in players do all the work. Well you have to get your money's worth!). Unfortunately the number of places available to native players is now so small that we are in danger of not having a critical mass necessary to maintain a pool of quality players. Thus more overseas talent will be sucked in. There still is money available in the game but less and less will go to nuture local talent as the counties will seek the profits that go with winning competitions and the external stars will milk the wealth. The Pattinson saga is in danger of being repeated but next time with players lifted from county second teams.

  • Swami on July 31, 2008, 4:14 GMT

    Orthodox spinners dont have much of a future. Even Vettori's stats are hardly impressive and made of match winning stuff. They can at best do a holding role and batsmen around the world have generally mastered them. Monty falls into this category. To me it seems like the English coaching system does not tolerate unorthodox techniques, and selectors more intent on covering their backsides, dont have the guts to encourage such players. At international level, you need to surprise opposition with more than just textbook stuff.

  • Michael on July 31, 2008, 3:36 GMT

    Michael Vaughn we loved your captaincy in the ashes when England defeated Australia which is the glory of your career.Now do the honourable thing and step down.There is no shortage of commentary spots for retired test captains.You will enjoy the comapany of Hussein and Atherton or even Boycott.

  • Michael on July 31, 2008, 0:08 GMT

    Panesar seems to be struggling, but haw much is due to having such small totals to defend. When the batsmen can just settle in with plenty of time and no pressure on to play shots and accelerate the run rate, spinners will find the going tougher. Anyway, the faster bowlers aren't having much more success in removing SA batsmen. The lack of application and staying power in the batting is of far more concern.

  • ian on July 30, 2008, 20:48 GMT

    A few points for consideration. Play the best wicketkeeper: that's Foster. Play Flintoff and Broad. Drop Collingwood (Broad gets his all-rounder's spot) for the rest of the season. Drop Vaughan (no runs and becoming defensive as a captain - defensive of his mates, I mean... Dressing room camaraderie means buggerall unless there's performance in the middle to back it up). Key gets his place. New Captain then... Strauss. Sorted!

    Cook, Strauss, Key, KP, Bell, Flintoff, Broad, Foster, Sidebottom, Anderson, Panesaar. (This actually looks like a team that will compete!)

    PS: Harmison is not worth considering; He won't tour, so what's the point of choosing someone whose commitment is questionable?

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