July 8, 2009

The biggest day in Welsh cricket

Andrew Strauss wondered how a match played in Cardiff could give England any home advantage, but few will begrudge Wales its moment in the sun

"Come Wednesday morning everybody will be cheering the British cricket team." So bristled Robert Croft last weekend with a relish you could almost taste, the "British" a prickly, pointed deviation from the norm. Coming in the wake of some typically provocative needling from his Sky Sports colleague Charles Colvile, it was a comment entirely in keeping with this proud Welsh offspinner, who during the 1997 Ashes series told me that he celebrated his selection for the England team as the equivalent of being picked for the British Lions.

Yet make no mistake: today is the biggest day in the history of Welsh cricket, and you would need a degree in curmudgeonry to begrudge the Principality its moment in the sun. Sadly, to judge by the whingeing of the past few months, tens of thousands, it seems, including the England captain, are eminently qualified.

Yes, Katherine Jenkins will sing the Welsh national anthem before play. Yes, the majority of spectators would rather give up their first-born than see their national team lose to England at rugby union. And yes, you could be forgiven for wondering, as Andrew Strauss has done, whether a match played in Cardiff can bestow any home advantage on the ostensible host nation.

But no, you would not be mistaken for imagining, as so many of my students do, that the acronym ECB stands for the England Cricket Board. And yes, you would be wrong to believe that there have been no official efforts, however futile, to squeeze a W between the E and the C. And yes, lest we forget, the current ICC president, David Morgan, is Welsh, as is Hugh Morris, managing director of the England team. Glamorgan, furthermore, have won more County Championships (three) than the combined might of Derbyshire, Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire and Somerset (one).

Seven years ago, gene scientists at London's University College claimed to have found proof that the Welsh are the only "true" Britons, adding substance to the oft-rubbished notion that Celtic Britain underwent a form of ethnic cleansing by Anglo-Saxon invaders following the Roman withdrawal in the fifth century. Between 50% and 100% of the indigenous population of what was to become England was purportedly wiped out, with Offa's Dyke acting as a "genetic barrier" protecting those on the Welsh side.

Which may well explain why pride is so integral to the Welsh character, a pride symbolised by a renascent language and finding its collective identity in support of a rugby union team that unites the rival communities of East and West Wales while consistently battering and bettering the vastly more affluent English. As John Winterson Richards puts it in his wittily provocative yet insightful book The Xenophobe's Guide to the Welsh : "Welsh pride is real pride - the sort of mindless, instinctive, animal pride that requires no justification or excuse. It is simply pride for the sake of pride. Such pride is the only thing one has left when one has been stripped of everything else."

Let's stop all the sniping and carping. The "England" cricket team has always been a misnomer. Scots have captained it; Celts of all hues have decorated its ranks. Now, finally, a Test match is going to be played in another corner of Britain

Welshmen have done duty for England but not all that many and not terribly often - and none will be on duty today, nor in this series, though the allrounder James Harris could be an outside bet for the 2010-11 Ashes. Croft's 21 Tests make him the most-capped Glamorgan player, although another offspinner, Bangor-born Pat Pocock, won 25 while playing for Surrey. The most fondly remembered cricketing Taff, for all that, is Don Shepherd, who in a career that endured from 1950 to 1972 harvested more first-class wickets (2218) than Trevor Bailey, Ray Illingworth or Hedley Verity, yet never once found favour with the England selectors. The justification most commonly given was that his modus operandi was not all that different from that of Derek Underwood, with whom the latter part of his career had the misfortune to coincide.

Greatness came closest to touching Cyril Walters, the first of two men born in the Principality to captain England (Tony Lewis being the other) and the only one to do so against Australia. On the opening day of the 1934 Lord's Test the elegant Worcestershire opener stroked his silky way to 82, drawing the highest praise from the Manchester Guardian's correspondent. "It was by MacLaren out of F. S. Jackson," raved Neville Cardus, who had worshipped MacLaren as a boy. "His strokes were aglow with style; he made them swiftly and late. His wrists gave lustre to every movement of his bat." Walters made over 400 runs in that series at 50 but quit the international arena the following year, having won just 11 caps, at the request, it is said, of a new wife who didn't like the game and, more to the point, wanted him at her side at all times.

Coitus interruptus of a rather different order befell the lone Welshman to play a significant role in an Ashes victory (if we discount Stuart MacGill, whose mother was born in Bridgend), namely Simon Jones, whose combination of hwyl, high pace and reverse swing brought him 18 scalps in 2005 before knee trouble cut him down. He has not added to his 18 Test outings since the decisive Trent Bridge Test, and probably never will. Such is the curse of the Joneses: his father, Jeff, a rapid left-armer, toured Australia in 1965-66, and helped win the 1968 Wisden Trophy series in the Caribbean, but also had his career foreshortened by injury.

Had Jones the Younger not been so coldly deserted by Dame Fortune, England's prospects in this series would have been considerably enhanced, such was the spell he cast over the Australian batsmen four summers ago. Still, the Welsh influence on this series may yet be catalytic if the SWALEC Stadium pitch turns as anticipated, in which case an indecent amount of humble pie will have to be consumed by all those who would deny Cardiff its week in the sun.

Treachery can surely be discounted. The last time a British ground broke its Test virginity during an Ashes series was 1902, when both Edgbaston and Bramall Lane entered the ranks. Neither yielded a home win - the weather saved Australia in Birmingham after Wilfred Rhodes bowled them out for 36, and they won in Sheffield. The latter paid a heavy price for such treason, never being entrusted with another major international. Given that Glamorgan bid a cool £3.2m to host this game, it is hard to envisage such a faux pas being repeated.

So let's stop all the sniping and carping. The "England" cricket team has always been a misnomer. Scots have captained it; Celts of all hues have decorated its ranks. Now, finally, a Test match is going to be played in another corner of Britain. In the words of the Principality's finest rock band, Man, "Get up, come on!"

AND SO TO OMENS. Not since the 1980s, and only twice since the 19th century, have England taken consecutive Ashes series at home. Both triumphs, instructively, owed an inordinate amount to one outstanding individual. In 1953 and 1956, Jim Laker harvested a total of 55 wickets at 11.89, including 35 at 8.91 in England's three victories. In 1977, 1981 and 1985 - which saw back-to-back-to-back series wins - Ian Botham tallied 75 victims at 23.43 in addition to two match-winning hundreds and countless gravity-mocking catches. In Kevin Pietersen, and perhaps Andrew Flintoff, England have one, maybe two chaps capable of such derring-doings.

That both those periods of domination occurred under the auspices of Conservative governments may or may not be purely coincidental. Likewise the fact that, since 1956, England have twice regained the Ashes at home under Labour and just once under the Tories. Indeed, the Australians have greater cause to draw comfort from history. The last time they came here in the midst of a recession, in 1989, they did so as marginal underdogs, yet retrieved the urn with ease. Never, moreover, have they lost a series here in the final year of a decade. Shane or no Shane, England can consider themselves well and truly warned.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton