Essay, 2004

Would you rather be an Oaf than a fool?

Glenn Moore

For an English cricketer to hit the back-page headlines this June only the most spectacular feats or depraved acts will suffice. Otherwise football will rule, and not just in the red-top tabloids. As far as Kipling was concerned, it was an equal choice: contented your souls With the flannelled fools at the wicket or the muddied oafs at the goals.

But it is not equal any more. The oafs will be in Portugal, seeking to win football's European Championship, and while David Beckham's England team remain in contention, the fools will have to perform wonders - or horrors - against New Zealand and West Indies to get any attention at all.

Once, the games coexisted quite happily. Into the 1950s it was possible for men like Willie Watson (Yorkshire and Sunderland) and Arthur Milton (Gloucestershire and Arsenal) to be internationals in both sports. On the day Leicestershire became champions in 1975, Chris Balderstone got to 51 not out against Derbyshire, raced off in a taxi to play for Doncaster Rovers against Brentford and came back next morning to complete his century. Perhaps that was the apogee of the Boy's Own ideal. It probably came to a halt 14 years later when Andy Goram, who won 43 caps for Scotland at soccer, was also picked to play for Scotland at cricket (in mid-July) against Allan Border's Australians. He played; and his football club, then Hibernian, fined him for it.

Now, another 15 years on, both games are in perpetual motion. And football, with its uncomplicated nature and rapid drama, dominates the British scene. As a consequence even mundane players in the Premiership are paid £1 million plus a year. Little wonder the successors to Balderstone and Goram are more likely to hang up their whites than their shorts. Last year even Michael Vaughan, the England captain, said he would have done the same had his knees allowed him.

Never again will the world look upon the likes of Colonel Henry Waugh Renny-Tailyour of the Royal Engineers, who in the 1870s batted and bowled for Kent, played in three of the first four FA Cup finals and still had time to slip in a rugby international for Scotland.

Indeed, rugby now appears to have joined football as a threat to cricket. The England team's 2003 World Cup triumph significantly raised the allure of the oval-ball code. Already two potential England cricketers have been lost to the scrum. Liam Botham's decision to play rugby, rather than carry on with Hampshire, stemmed from a desire to be judged on his own merits, rather than by comparison with the epic feats of his father, Ian. His former Newcastle Falcons team-mate, Jonny Wilkinson, simply saw rugby as the better outlet for his talent.

Wilkinson's performances in Australia made him a national hero. But the cupping movement he makes with his hands before each kick at goal might easily have been seen in a slip cordon. Wilkinson's all-round performances for Lord Wandsworth College led to him being described as "outstanding" in both the 1997 and 1998 Wisdens. But even then there was mention of his rugby commitments restricting his involvement.

Unlike Renny-Tailyour, he had to make a choice - as did Phil Neville, Manchester United's England international. Neville was a high-class batsman as a schoolboy; when captaining young England teams, he numbered Andrew Flintoff, Vikram Solanki and Gareth Batty among his charges. Jim Cumbes, now chief executive of Lancashire, and a former footballer-cricketer himself, said: "Many of the members at Lancashire who knew him felt he would have gone all the way with cricket. But clearly when Manchester United knock on your door, you go."

It was not, said Neville, quite as simple as that. His elder brother Gary was already at United and loving it. There was one other factor. "One year I played both sports for England," Neville recalled. "In the football I played at Wembley Stadium in front of 50,000. I made my England cricket debut in front of 50 people at a village cricket club." It was a similar reality which drove Neville's United team-mate, Roy Keane, to seek anonymity at the cricketing Old Trafford one afternoon when some indiscretion had the world's press at his door.

English cricket will never know what it lost in Neville, Botham and Wilkinson. It does know what it would have lost had Vaughan been blessed with the same dual ability. Vaughan admitted to the magazine FHM that he would have chosen football had the opportunity arisen. "I love football," he said, "but my knees would never have lasted."

Since the interview was part of cricket's attempt to rebrand itself in an attempt to dent football's hold on the youth market this was something of an own goal. Vaughan still follows the game, especially if Sheffield Wednesday are involved, but since becoming England captain he has become cautious on this subject.

Graham Thorpe is less reticent. He was a central midfielder good enough to win three caps for England Schools Under-18s. Unlike his team-mates, who were affiliated to professional clubs, Thorpe was an amateur and, although Brentford showed an interest, a future in cricket seemed more probable. Since none of the footballers went on to play at the highest level, and only a few made a career in the game, it seems he made the right move.

Thorpe, a keen Chelsea fan, has no regrets. He said: "I don't really envy anything about a footballer's life - certainly not the adulation or the pressures of fame the top players have to contend with. I am quite happy with the career I have chosen. I reckon the only advantage they have over us is that their game lasts 90 minutes not five days so they get more time off to work on their golf swings."

That is not just a joke. The time commitment is one of the most significant differences. Cricketers spend a lot more time "playing" their game, even if they are sitting in the pavilion. Footballers train more than they play but, because it is a physically demanding sport, even the training is limited to around three hours a day. This leaves them with a lot of free time on their hands. Too much for many, judging by the game's problems with alcohol, gambling and drugs.

Cricketers are away from their families for much longer. Winter tours last months, and even in the summer they are away half the season. Outside the major competitions, and pre-season tours, footballers are rarely absent for more than a couple of days at a stretch. However, the lack of trust in players' self-discipline means their trips are strictly controlled - they rarely see anything other than airports, hotels and stadiums. Cricketers do sometimes actually visit places. "We get to see far more of the world than they do," said Thorpe. "I've been everywhere from the Khyber Pass to the Victoria Falls with England."

The downside, as Thorpe has himself painfully experienced, is that personal relationships suffer. But the divorce rate is high among both sets of sportsmen: footballers, encouraged by their clubs to settle down, tend to marry younger. And both footballers and cricketers can have their personal business exposed in the tabloids - though footballers will rate bigger headlines.

Another plus of cricketing life, said Thorpe, is the longer career. Few footballers have earned an England comeback at 34, as he did last summer. Traditionally, there have also been greater opportunities for cricketers to forge a rewarding second career in the media. It might be argued that footballers, because of the money they earn, should not need either to play into their late thirties or find future employment. However, football can be a short career and rugby, given the potential for serious injury, even briefer. Many players are poorly advised and others never earn serious money.

Vince Wells and Tony Cottey, for example, chose football first but probably benefited by failing to make the grade. Wells was on Leyton Orient's books, only turning to cricket after being rejected for an apprenticeship; Cottey played three league matches for Swansea as a teenager before being released. Both have forged long and fruitful county careers.

There are other differences, some cultural. The feature in The Wisden Cricketer, "Dressing-room read", would not last long in a football magazine. When his first "autobiography" was published, Michael Owen admitted he had never actually read a book. Phil Neale, of Lincoln City and Worcestershire, carried a Tolstoy on to the coach for his first football away trip. It went swiftly out of the window. Graham Taylor, his manager, advised him to start watching Coronation Street so he would be able to join in conversations. English football is now more cosmopolitan, but the nature of its Anglo-Saxon participants has not changed significantly.

Neale was, though, impressed with the greater fitness, a gap that remains. He also found football to be mentally tougher. There is a casual hardness about the game bred, he feels, by the insecurity that comes from having more time between performances and being one bad tackle away from a broken career.

The cricketer does still have rewards denied to the muddied millionaires. In their peripatetic careers, footballers and, increasingly, rugby players, tend to make acquaintances. Cricketers, living cheek-by-jowl with team-mates and drinking with opponents, do still make friends.

Between 1990 and 1994 Glenn Moore covered cricket for Reuters, The Independent on Sunday and The Independent. Since 1994 he has been The Independent's football correspondent.

© John Wisden & Co