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