August 26, 2009

No time for back-slapping

England have displayed fortitude, pride, skill and unity, but they need to confront some hard truths still

Andrew Strauss's team deserved to win the Ashes. Only a churl could argue otherwise. Five matches lasting five days give every player and both sides an opportunity to prove their worth. Thanks to three stupendous pieces of bowling, Strauss's men edged it. As the captain sagely observed afterwards, "When we were bad, we were very bad. When we were good we were just good enough." In those words lie hope. England are far more likely to retain the Ashes in 2010-11 than was the case four years before. Amidst the celebrations the leadership has remembered that their team stands at fifth in the rankings, and that after a supremacy lasting 15 years Australia is no longer the measure of all things cricketing.

Whether England, or anyhow English cricket (though the difference is paper-thin), deserved to win the Ashes is another matter. It has long been contended in this column that countries, schools, families, teams, sports and everything else man built have a prevailing culture, an outlook that is at once a product and a predictor. It has long been argued that English culture, as opposed to English character (which has never been criticised) has lost its vim and vigour. As parliamentarians loot the coffers and seven-year-old children swear at teachers, as 14-year-olds routinely get blind drunk, and middle-aged parents cover themselves with tattoos, it's an argument easily sustained.

Even in sport the country seems to have lost direction. Of course every nation has its scandals and scams. Still, to see a fine rugby club lower itself to faking blood injuries in an attempt to steal a cup match was to realise that an honourable game had lost its way. Does anyone seriously believe the incident was the first of its kind? Leaders have been thin on the ground. The England soccer team, and most of the top Premier League managers, come from richer European, Celtic or South American traditions. Certainly the Scots and Irish ought not to be dumped alongside their neighbours, a point they have long been trying to make. Although it is probably best not to tell them, Yorkshire and Durham have close ties with Celtic customs. As much can be told from their accents.

At first sight England's Ashes victory might seem to dispose of such arguments and to prove that cricket is merely a cyclical game, as opposed to an expression of deeper forces within the nation. That Australia has fallen back is incontestable, but its problems are superficial. The country itself remains intact and therefore the cricket team will rally. Already steps are being taken to introduce an Under-23 competition with rules designed to encourage spin. Already, too, the issue of ageing state teams has been confronted. Two years ago the Queensland squad had an average age of 28. Now it is 24. Despite all the palaver about captaincy and dubious selections, the fact remains that in a short time Australia has lost Shane Warne, Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn, Adam Gilchrist Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Andrew Symonds. Defeat is not surprising and nor is the slide to fourth place in the rankings.

As it stands, the next Peter May and Harold Larwood will come from Johannesburg and Durham. For decades Yorkshire and Surrey provided hard characters and cricketers, but they seem to have run out of gas

Meanwhile England stands at fifth on the table. Its Ashes team was not entirely a product of English cricket, or indeed the country at large. Four of the top six batsmen were born in South Africa. The coach comes from Zimbabwe, two of the players come from the local Asian communities, and two Irishmen have fought their way into the one-day party.

Two other members of the squad were sons of past players, and several came from Durham, clearly the best-run county, though Nottinghamshire and Sussex have much to commend them. Mark Robinson's comments after his team had won the Twenty20 competition confirmed his high standing in the game. Mind you, the pitch was a stinker. It's high time Edgbaston and its groundsman were called to account. Durham and Trent Bridge ought to have Test matches every year.

This is not to decry the team or its players. To the contrary, they displayed fortitude, pride, skill and unity. Moreover, they managed to remain both aggressive and sporting. Nor is it to belittle diversity. This column has long fought in that corner. Nothing has given more pleasure in cricket than the partnership between AB de Villiers and JP Duminy that took the Proteas to victory in Perth last winter. Nothing has been more pleasing than to find a Muslim captaining India, Christians playing for Pakistan (four altogether). Not the least delight of this summer has been to find Adil Rashid and Ajmal Shahzad adding 200 for Yorkshire, and to see the bright young legspinner take five wickets in successive matches. Australia lags behind in that regard.

Still, we have all come a long way. Thirty years ago there was only one black player in English soccer. But there is still a long way to go before Martin Luther King's dream is realised (nowadays he might talk as much about religion as colour). But it is getting better. Actually the main battle these days is between medievalism and modernity.

However, it can hardly be convincingly argued that the England cricket team is a product of the system or the national will. To the contrary it consists in no small part of settlers and sons. And it's the same in county cricket. At present, counties have roughly 119 foreign-born players on their books, and that does not include Irishmen (14), Welshmen or Scots. Obviously the 23 locally born Asian players have been omitted. Of course they are a separate category. Their rise says a lot about them and English society, all of it favourable. Clearly the rise also says something about the love of cricket that exists in these families. If anything, though, their contributions confirm that Anglo-Saxon England is underperforming.

Other weaknesses can be found in English cricket. Conflict of interest is an issue. Ashley Giles is both a director of cricket at Warwickshire and a national selector. That cannot be right. Other past players work for various newspapers and at the same time work as agents for England cricketers. That cannot be right. Nor did anyone resign after the Stanford debacle. At least the newspapers nowadays occasionally raise the real issues. Previously they have tended towards elegant or colourful vapidity.

Money is poured into academies, coaches are hired left, right and centre; and still the next batsman of rank comes from Cape Town. Between them Surrey, Middlesex and Somerset have 27 foreign players on their books. Kolpak cannot be blamed: European employment laws gave counties an opportunity to cut corners, that is all. They were not forced to take it. They could have concentrated on producing cricketers of their own. In that regard the two-tiered championship has not helped. Apparently the selectors more or less ignore performances in the second division, which makes it harder to survive fallow years and build teams. Maybe the position ought to be reviewed.

Every country has its own sources of cricketing talent. In England the mines and private schools helped provide strong fast bowlers and classical batsmen. As it stands, the next Peter May and Harold Larwood will come from Johannesburg and Durham. For decades Yorkshire and Surrey provided hard characters and cricketers, but they seem to have run out of gas. Surrey appears to consist entirely of Stewarts and Butchers. Vast sums are paid to mentors and coaches and yet they are forced to spend a fortune to sign a wicketkeeper from Worcestershire (Duncan Fletcher will not be pleased about that). Meanwhile two Afghan refugees open the bowling for their Under-16s.

In egalitarian - though not yet republican - Australia the clubs remain the primary means of toughening talent. In South Africa and Zimbabwe the schools remain the place of cricketing ripening. CLR James and other distinguished local thinkers have often talked about the part played in Caribbean cricket by the informal matches in which Basil Butcher, Garry Sobers and the like cut their cricketing teeth. The West Indies, too, have not found a reliable replacement for their original tributaries. A fracturing is near at hand. Rest assured, though, that the entire team will appear in the forcing series Down Under.

Strauss and Flower excelled as leaders of their team. Flower is a hard head and did not join the team on their lap of honour at The Oval. The England team is in good hands and can climb the rankings. However, English cricket ought not to slap itself on the back. Not enough has changed. Not enough hard truths have been confronted. English cricket looks towards Nasser Hussain, Angus Fraser, Ed Smith and Matthew Fleming and others to take it further along the path.

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