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On the day after England's disastrous defeat in the Adelaide Test, the Ashes were resting in a glass case inside a darkened room at the South Australian Museum, just across from the collection of stuffed llamas and monkeys. A very steady stream of visitors came by to see the urn, which was supervised by a rather jolly security guard called Marie.
How do people react? "They mostly say 'Isn't it small?'" she replied. "Or they ask 'Is it the real one?' Or sometimes 'All this fighting over something so little!'" Marie's point was proved instantly. A smart-suited businessman, in jacket and tie despite the midsummer heat, strode towards the display. He stared for a few moments. "Is that it?" he asked incredulously.
The previous day's cricket had effectively ensured that the Ashes would, in the mythology of the game, return to Australia. But, in physical fact, the urn would shortly go in the other direction again. Mad, of course. But cricket is a perverse game, with moments of madness. And the previous day the nearest England had got to the Ashes was the fact that they batted like stuffed monkeys.
The notional Ashes usually reside in Australia. By 2009, England's next opportunity, it will be three-quarters of a century since Bill Woodfull took repossession after England's rather ignoble victory in the Bodyline series. In all that time England will have been holders for barely 20 years.
Yet the actual urn has only been allowed to visit Australia twice. Inevitably, this visit gave new life to the question: "Why?" It was unfortunate, however, that it required the intervention of the tycoon and self-publicist Sir Richard Branson to bring the argument to public attention. Branson did not help on an intellectual level, since he had no idea what he was talking about, and regularly referred to the urn's owners, MCC, as MMC.
But he did force MCC to address it. Why shouldn't the Ashes stay in the country that holds them? The traditional argument - that the urn is far too precious to withstand the travel involved - has been destroyed by its tour this winter. It made eight separate flights, and rather more car journeys. Had it been physically moved on every occasion it supposedly changed hands, it would only have made ten flights in the 75 years. So that's clearly nonsense. The second argument, advanced by an MCC spokeswoman after Branson had blathered, is "it's not a sporting trophy, it's a museum artefact". She will have to do better than that: it's obviously both - or why would anyone care? No sane person would suggest that the real urn should be presented and then booted round the winners' dressing-room. It is tiny. It is fragile. But museums lend their prize possessions to other museums all the time. That's what happened this winter.
There is no need to dispute MCC's ultimate ownership or its right - indeed duty - to oversee the urn's safe keeping. Australia should be told that if they construct a suitable display in one city (no messing about between Sydney and Melbourne), then the Ashes would be loaned to them whenever appropriate.
This is only fair. It would also add yet another layer of magnificence to this already sumptuous rivalry by bringing in the potent concept of "the empty plinth" for the losing country. The case for this was first argued here a dozen years ago. It's an idea whose time will come.
The baggy greenwashIn the days when the great Bishan Bedi was twirling happily, he used to applaud every time he was hit for four, in a manner that suggested the boundary was all part of his strategy - and that by hitting it, the batsman was just becoming ever more entrapped in his web.
I thought of Bedi in February, after England had won something called the Commonwealth Bank Trophy: David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, self-righteously demanded that the media should apologise for their criticisms, and coach Duncan Fletcher started reminiscing about the motivational power of a polar explorer who quoted Mother Teresa at him. Losing the Ashes? Hah! You don't understand: just part of our cunning plan. It was indeed an astonishing finale. Once a tour has failed, and the players have started pining for home, the condition can normally be cured only by the flight out. Perhaps this team finally confronted the thought of returning to Heathrow with blankets over their heads. No touring team had ever been insulted as rudely as this one; and none so richly deserved it. We always knew they could play, and yet this tour did fail. There was no Bedi-style masterplan to fool the Aussies by handing them some early successes.
England's job was to win the Ashes. And the defiant little PS should not deflect anyone from the main facts.
We can see it clearly now: Australia would have regained the Ashes even if England had played up to their 2005 standards. Anyone who has ever seen a western knows that when a group of old compadres get together for one last, vital mission, it cannot end in failure. And these compadres were way too good, way too committed. Even the most embittered England supporter should take pleasure in the fact that they have seen Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist bat and, above all, seen Shane Warne bowl.
England's one chance was essentially negative: that the intensity of the schedule would favour the younger team. But though England were younger, they weren't fitter. The fact of losing was no disgrace: it is 36 years now since England last won an away series against a full-strength Australian side. The manner of it was disgraceful. England were at once worn out but under-prepared; complacent yet overapprehensive; inward-looking yet dysfunctional as a unit; closeted yet distracted.
There were many reasons, the most pertinent, I hope, all raised in our Ashes section. The captaincy was not especially significant. Doubtless Michael Vaughan would have done the job better than Andrew Flintoff. So might Andrew Strauss. Indeed, any one of us who sensed that England should have batted on into the third morning at Adelaide would have averted the whitewash.
When the Flintoff v Strauss conundrum first arose last summer, it seemed to have the makings of one of those great English captaincy arguments which always pit a public school/university chap from the Home Counties against a working-class northerner: Sheppard v Hutton; Cowdrey v Close; Cowdrey v Illingworth; Brearley v Boycott. Yet the debate never really took wing (the public got more passionate about the wicketkeeping, and later the spin bowling). My own feeling is that if your best player really, really wants the captaincy, there has to be an excellent reason to deny him - which there wasn't. And simply, the captaincy makes less difference these days.
Everywhere now (perhaps less in Australia than elsewhere), the power rests with the coach, and England's coach had become very powerful indeed. Duncan Fletcher took over the job in 1999, in a climate of despair after a World Cup performance that was not so much disastrous as farcical. A sympathetic ECB chairman, Lord MacLaurin, ensured that he had resources - central contracts, specialist assistance, luxury travel - that his predecessors could only fantasise about. Above all, he had authority: on tour, it became unbridled to an extent previously matched only, very briefly, by Ray Illingworth; at home Fletcher saw off a rival as intimidating as Rod Marsh, who found his views on wicketkeeping disregarded; even the chairman of selectors, David Graveney, was kept at arm's length. And Fletcher also made certain the contracted players played as little cricket as possible whether under his direct control or not - traditional warm-up and practice matches, difficult enough given the current schedule, were disdained.
Against this background, Fletcher was able to create a hermetically sealed world in which he believed his players could thrive. This was the "England bubble". And the players did thrive. The first five years of this millennium represented English cricket's most sustained period of success since the 1950s. England played some vibrant, thrilling cricket. Fletcher's professionalism, his seeming omniscience and his sense of certainty played a major role in making this happen. It all culminated in the summer of 2005.
But there are problems living inside a bubble: eventually the oxygen runs out. And if this one began as the Eden Project, it had turned by this winter into something like the Big Brother house. Accurate information rarely seeped out; it also stopped seeping in. In the nature of things, players came and went from the bubble, but Fletcher was ever-present, and in the rare downtime allowed by this demanding job, he disappeared to his home in Cape Town. He isn't a man given to cocktail party chit-chat either (to put it mildly). So he lost touch. Even experts have to keep listening and learning; Fletcher, on the evidence of the 2006-07 Ashes, just stopped. Indeed, one senior county coach, a man who should be in constant touch with the England management, told me recently that Fletcher had not spoken to him in more than two years.
English supporters at the Adelaide Test talked non-stop even to strangers about the team selection. The chairman of selectors was there on a private visit, yet Graveney was not party to the decisions. If one enquired about this, there was some piffle about "protocol", as though this were the Japanese imperial palace rather than a cricket tour.
The team was evidently picked by Fletcher and his tyro captain. There may have been some input from the "tour committee" (Strauss, Paul Collingwood and Geraint Jones) though it is hard to imagine what: "Who do you think should keep wicket, Geraint?" Afterwards, Fletcher hinted that the decision to play James Anderson and Ashley Giles and not Monty Panesar had been based on the evidence of a practice match, the sort of game he had spent his reign demolishing and decrying, and that he had wanted Panesar to play, anyway. "I am not the only selector," he said, which was a cowardly comment.
To survive in sports team management long-term, flexibility is paramount. The trick is to sense developing flaws and take action, well before they become obvious to the outside world. Instead, Fletcher foolishly failed to consider the consequences of Giles's long-term injury or to grasp that Panesar was the one weapon he had with even the possibility of surprising the Australians. Instead, he initially spurned him, then allowed (or encouraged) Flintoff to set defensive fields when Panesar did play, sending a message to the enemy that he was no threat - the very reverse of the psychology Warne had applied so effectively against all-comers over the past 14 years. It is time for renewal, and there can be no renewal without change at the top. By the time you read this, Fletcher might have taken the decision for himself. I hope so. But it has to be made: whatever happens in the World Cup, England must have a new coach.
Daddy, is there a real Andrew Flintoff?The disappearance of England players from anything other than international cricket is only marginally Duncan Fletcher's doing; the schedule - beefed up for revenue-raising reasons just as Fletcher took over - is the main culprit. Meantime the argument goes on about whether England players play either too much or too little ("just the right amount" appears not to be an option). It seems to me that one question that needs addressing is not the amount, but the intensity. I believe Test cricketers need light and shade. They benefit from playing in situations where there is less pressure, less scrutiny, where they can try out new skills, work on flaws, and regain confidence by overcoming lesser players and reminding themselves that they are actually good at this game - or maybe regain perspective by being humbled.
Counties need to have some connection with their local heroes, for everyone's sake. Why support Durham if you never, ever see Paul Collingwood? A junior Lancashire player would have more evidence for the existence of Father Christmas than Andrew Flintoff. Of the last 86 cricket matches Andrew Strauss had played up to the end of the Australian tour, only 14 were non-internationals, and just four of those were first-class. Other countries' players are more likely to play lower-grade cricket - most get breaks during the English season, and can join a county. No one wants to go back to the days when counties could knacker England fast bowlers with impunity. But it is now way, way out of balance in the other direction.
Gone tomorrowFew cricket matches in history have produced such an outpouring of hyperbole and rot as England v Pakistan at The Oval 2006. The forfeited Test was, more than anything, a glorious example of cricket's ability to seize everyone's attention with a dispute of mind-blowing complexity. Number of people offering an opinion: millions. Number of people who had actually read The Spirit of Cricket declaration, Law 42.3 and page 115 of the ICC's Standard Test Match Playing Conditions: approximately zero. The Independent, a paper that used to shun hysteria, called it "Cricket's Darkest Hour".
Bodyline? Apartheid? Match-fixing? Zimbabwe? The last occasion when a Test match in England was halted so improbably was Headingley 1975. The pitch was vandalised by campaigners for a prisoner called George Davis - wrongfully convicted, it was claimed - and an intriguingly poised Ashes Test was abandoned. (Cue for heated debate between cricket-lovers and people arguing that justice was more important than a cricket match.)
It transpired that Davis, who was - as they say - well-known to the police, had indeed been imprisoned for a crime he had not committed. He was released, and shortly afterwards jailed again, whereupon nobody complained because this time he had evidently dunnit. Hair may have taken his cue from Scotland Yard.
Let me explain. The line between legitimately obtained reverse swing and what is now considered cheating is a very fine one. Anecdotal evidence suggests many bowlers from every country touch this line and occasionally cross it, just as their front foot sometimes crosses the popping crease. Hair, like the clodhopping coppers in the Davis case, apparently thought he knew who the villains were and decided to nab them. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong crime - maybe no crime at all.
He reminded me too of Gabriel Oak's dog in Far from the Madding Crowd. Taught to round up sheep, the dog herded them over a cliff; expecting praise, he was shot instead. Hair had been instructed to enforce the Laws of Cricket, evidently unaware of the unwritten aspects of the code. In county cricket, sensible umpires, dependent on captains' marks for future appointments, like to give captains the benefit of the doubt. The same applies to powerful countries in a highly politicised game.
Apart from the baffled spectators, just about everyone must take some blame after crazy Sunday: Hair, his acquiescent partner Billy Doctrove, the befuddled referee Mike Procter, the Pakistan captain Inzamam-ul-Haq on his high horse, his board, the ECB (for telling the spectators nothing), and the ICC, who we will come to later. But it seems to me that Hair got most blame for the things where he was most blameless, while his biggest error was largely ignored.
Cricket cannot work out whether ball-tampering is the most heinous form of cheating, or a technical offence, like nicking the office stationery. The Laws, by offering five penalty runs, the same as for hitting a stray helmet, suggest one thing; the reaction another. Many critics seemed to be arguing that the allegation was so serious that Hair should have had a quiet word with Inzamam first. More subtle umpires would have done that. But it is having it both ways. An umpire is supposed to make an honest judgment and apply the Laws.
It was the next bit where his judgment really went awry. Yes, of course, the Pakistanis shouldn't have gone on strike: it was petty and petulant. But it was in no one's interests for them to forfeit the game: it cheated the 11,000 who had tickets for Monday; it cheated England, awarded a victory that could only provide embarrassment, not satisfaction; and it robbed Hair of his career. Had the game gone on, the shemozzle would have been forgotten far more quickly, and he might have survived.
It is implicit within the Laws (though never spelled out even in the verbose 2000 Code), and the culture of the game, that the umpires are there to settle disputes between the teams. If the captains agree on a course of action, then the umpires should refrain from intervening even if they have the right to do so. Law 27.8, precedent and common sense all say a fielding captain can recall a batsman if he regrets an appeal. If both captains want to play on in a downpour, they can do so unless the umpires think deep fine leg is at risk of actually drowning. Officiating does not mean officiousness. England were willing to waive their right to victory, and carry on with the game; Hair should have let them do so.
My understanding is that, in the long-into-the-night negotiations that followed, Hair twice almost agreed to rescind the forfeit. Once, he was about to give way when a sudden Pakistani tirade caused him to walk out. Later, he said he wanted to sleep on it. The ECB (rightly) said that was impossible: this couldn't go on - there were ticket-holders to consider.
The third aspect was the famous exchange of emails, revealed to the world by the ICC, which led to the immediate, and seemingly unanimous, denunciation of Hair as some kind of blackmailer. The ICC presented this improbable exercise in open government as a legally necessary step because the Pakistanis' lawyers would have found out.
Hair, in a situation of extreme stress, wrote to his manager, Doug Cowie, understandably trying to protect his financial situation, as most people do when they know they face the sack. He offered to get out of their hair, as it were, in return for three or four years' salary. A reasonable negotiating position for starters, though he would have been better advised to get his lawyers on the case. Once again, he jumped in with both feet.
But there can hardly be a soul in the modern world who would not be made to look idiotic by publication of their more ill-advised emails. Every week some spurned woman avenges herself on a caddish ex-lover by posting his messages on the web. The Wisden Book of The Editor's Most Irritable Memos might prove quite popular, but I wouldn't wish to help with the publicity. Hair sent confidential emails to Cowie, who sensibly referred them to his boss, Malcolm Speed. Not a man normally given to melodrama, Speed then leapt on a plane to London, called a press conference and generated headlines bigger than those for the forfeit itself. Ridiculous.
It was all ridiculous. And the consequences will help define the future shape of cricket. Some things seem pretty certain. Hair, lately on a form of gardening leave with occasional light umpiring in out-of-the-way places, will not umpire another major international match, and will probably get a financial deal much like the one he originally requested, if he doesn't break himself in the courts.
Future umpires will be more inhibited and learn to calculate the political consequences of their actions. And the game itself will become yet more dominated by the ICC's politicians. For that, Darrell, thanks a bunch.
The other side of KolpakA generation ago, patients in British hospitals were surprised, and occasionally discomfited, to be treated by doctors and nurses from all round the world. Now no one thinks twice about it: attitudes have moved on. This may be a pity. Every doctor from Sudan, Senegal or Suriname working in the National Health Service is one fewer in a place where the need is even more urgent and where their salaries would be a fraction of those in the UK. Each one who comes to Britain to stay, rather than to hone his or her skill and earn short-term cash, represents a small disaster for patients in their home country.
What has this to do with Wisden? Consider the Kolpak players, the foreigners - South Africans in particular - who under European law cannot be stopped from playing county cricket. In our Review section, Robin Martin-Jenkins passionately defends the system from the county pro's viewpoint. But look at it from South Africa's point of view. Their cricket cannot match the money now being paid by English counties. Even their very top players struggle to earn the £50,000 - £100,000 salaries now on offer. For the fringe players, the slightly over-the-hill ones, there is no comparison: county cricket now pays double, triple, quadruple. South Africans are wrestling with their consciences, doing the sums, talking to their wives - and signing.
This problem will probably worsen in 2008, when counties will only be able to play one official overseas player at a time. There seems to be a reciprocal understanding that teams will fill the gap with a Kolpak or two, who will thus forswear Test cricket at least for the duration of their contract.
The pool of players available to South Africa's national team is already becoming dangerously shallow; the alarm is that some of their most precious stars could also emigrate.
As with the doctors, it may be advantageous to South Africa if they go away for a finite period (as is believed to be the case with Yorkshire's new signing, Jacques Rudolph). But many will not return until it is too late for them to represent their country.
Despite the new performance-related pay system (which is a mild disincentive to the counties to employ Kolpaks) and despite the fact that even cricket-lovers care less and less who wins which trivial piece of county silverware, the pressure on coaches and chief executives is intense. Yet it is far more important to English cricket that South Africa remain attractive and credible opposition than whether Yorkshire or Durham get relegated.
There is a delicious irony in this for those with long memories. South Africans now have to make the same choice that English pros had to make in the days of rebel tours to South Africa: take the money or stay loyal to your country and official cricket, who will probably give you damn-all appreciation in return. But it wasn't right then, and it isn't right now.
Room to manoeuvreWhen South Africa beat Australia in the record-breaking one-day international of 872 runs at the Wanderers in March last year, most spectators were enchanted. But there was an impassioned voice of dissent. It came from one of the world's greatest-ever batsmen: Barry Richards raged that small boundaries were ruining the game. It was like asking Tiger Woods to play on a 4,000-metre course, he said. "Cricket's the only game that has been made smaller in the past hundred years."
And Richards is right, of course: the beauty of cricket cannot be measured by the number of runs hit in a day. It is a game of context, hinging on the delicate balance between bat and ball. That balance has been getting ever more out of kilter: batsmen get stronger, their bats more effective, their padding more generous, the pitches less interesting, umpires more cautious, yet bowlers are scrutinised for the merest hint of ball-doctoring - they can't even get away with honest-to-goodness old-fashioned seam-picking any more. ICC regulations require a three-yard gap between the boundary rope and the perimeter fence, to avoid outfielders damaging themselves, which is fair enough. But the gap often looks bigger than that. At Adelaide, the rope was so far in on the straight boundary that the ground lost its distinctive eggshape, and what used to be the world's most impossible hit became almost chippable. The space was occupied merely by a couple of TV cameras and the drinks cart. In a future, Warneless game, spin bowlers will need even more help. They need room in which to operate. And this is an issue that needs resolving.
Mission accomplished (sort of)A year ago, sceptical about the hype attached to the expansion of cricket, I suggested here that the ICC should change its mission statement, which began with the phrase "promoting the game as a global sport". The official mission now is to "lead by promoting and protecting the game, and its unique spirit; delivering outstanding, memorable events; providing excellent service to Members and stakeholders; and optimising its commercial rights and properties for the benefit of its Members".
Not a word about expansion. "We believe that we have attracted sufficient member countries," explained Malcolm Speed. "We are now trying to consolidate." Funnily enough, I don't recall this fundamental change ever being announced. One should just shut up and smile at this small victory, but I am not sure that this constitutes a recantation on the ICC's part. Just before his term as the organisation's president ended, Ehsan Mani said: "No game can sustain itself in the long term if it is only played by ten countries."
OK, let's consider just one example. American football is hardly played outside the United States. (Even in Canada, gridiron takes a different form.) There is a "developmental league" that operates in Germany and the Netherlands; the game is said to be popular in Mexico and American Samoa. Following the collapse of the Channel 4-inspired boomlet in Britain in the 1980s, that's about it. Sustainable?
The National Football League's rights are believed to be not merely the most lucrative in American sport, but the most lucrative in the whole American entertainment industry. At Super Bowl XLI this February, advertising rates peaked at above $5m per minute. I am not against the expansion of cricket, far from it. I am against the propagation of nonsense.
Tell me a story, pleaseYet another committee, under the chairmanship of the ECB's deputy chief executive Hugh Morris, is looking (oh, do pay attention at the back) at reforming the structure of the English season.
The current set-up is not merely the worst that has yet been invented, but possibly the worst that could be imagined: the Championship interspersed with three one-day competitions, turgidly organised and distinguishable from each other only by the length of the matches. The destruction of the once-beautiful knockout cup should be used as a case study of blithering administrative idiocy. In Washington, politicians get impeached for less.
Nothing significant can be changed until 2010, when the current TV deal ends. Morris will doubtless talk to the top honchos at Sky, the county money men and the coaches, in that order of importance. The best hope is that the counties and TV companies might be persuaded to junk the 40-over thingy, whatever it's called.
Will he even think of the people cricket has lost? The ones who followed the game mainly through the county they regarded as theirs - perhaps a distant one. They would look at the scores in the papers, identify with the heroes, rejoice in their centuries, suffer their ducks with them. No one now has the foggiest idea who is playing who, what, when, how or why.
Sport needs above all a narrative, a straightforward storyline that the public can grasp. Ashes cricket has it - and how. The World Cup will probably get one. So do all successful sporting events. Going along for the spectacle of a Twenty20 may be one thing; but the county cricket enthusiast is vanishing - turned off by the hopeless mish-mash.
Very interesting, now what's the score?One of the nicest little innovations of Channel 4's now defunct TV coverage was the old-fashioned scoreboard (complete with a curly Dutch gable, like the one at Edgbaston), which would pop up occasionally and relay the score in a manner most of us could understand.
Everywhere, boards like this are being digitised, electrified and modified to include such subsidiary information as extras, Duckworth/Lewis targets, and the number of overs bowled by each bowler in a Twenty20 game. Invariably, they get less clear, and often incomprehensible.
Many Test grounds now have worse scoreboards than village greens because they do not convey basic information with any clarity. Cardiff, home to an Ashes Test in 2009, has a board that should present no difficulty at all to any qualified 747 pilot. Bristol is worse. Edgbaston's new board at the Pavilion End (the one without the Dutch gables) gives the balls faced by each batsman - in such a way that people inevitably think it's their score.
Lord's provides a model for how electronic boards can work effectively. But unfortunately, by last summer, so many bulbs had blown that it was often difficult to work out whether a batsman had 36 or 80.
It is no better overseas. The Sydney electronic screen is so useless that the 300 stand between Sachin Tendulkar and V. V. S. Laxman in the 2004 New Year Test went unapplauded. (The lack of information was exacerbated at the SCG this year by the presence of the world's most moronic ground announcer.) Even the beautiful, treasured, protected Adelaide scoreboard is not flawless. As soon as Flintoff foolishly declared this winter, the operators whipped England's score of 551 off so fast it was impossible to note a single detail. Curiously, the second-innings 129 seemed to stay up rather longer. Please: could ground authorities put more thought into this subject?
Print the legendOn the way up to the Trent Bridge Test against Sri Lanka, I turned off the motorway and spent the night at the Royal Hotel, overlooking the cricket ground at Ashby-de-la-Zouch, where Leicestershire played until 1964. It's partly the name, of course, but there is something about Ashby-de-la-Zouch that conjures up the lost era of the county circuit, when it was far more vivid and varied than it is now. It's a lovely ground too, somewhat spoiled by a monstrous new pavilion.
I knew one story about the place, which also sums up the old circuit: that Denis Compton, bleary-eyed, walked straight to the crease from his hotel bedroom. Theoretically, you could still do that, though Law 31 - "timed out" - might come into play. There is a line of Lombardy poplars blocking the view, and the route between hotel and square involves risking the nettles and squeezing through a narrow gap in the fence. But 60 years ago, there might have been a little wicket gate (or indeed fall-of-wicket gate). Perhaps one night in 1947, Compo really did paint A-de-la-Z red, then rush out next morning and sprinkle a little more gold-dust across his most glorious year.
But a great many things have changed since 1947, aside from the building of ugly pavilions, the loss of old venues, and sterner training regimes for cricketers. Databases can reveal in seconds facts that used to take years to research. According to CricketArchive, Compton never played a first-class or even Second XI match at Ashby-de-la-Zouch.
Consider also John Betjeman's poem Cheltenham:
I composed these lines when a summer wind
Was blowing the elm leaves dry,
And we were seventy-six for seven
And they had C. B. Fry.
There is no record that C. B. Fry ever played at Cheltenham. His school, Repton, did not play there in the late 19th century. And he had done his Achilles tendon when Sussex had a fixture there in 1906. Sussex did have A. E. Relf, among others who would have scanned but not rhymed - plus someone referred to on CricketArchive, though not in the 1907 Wisden, as J. E. B. B. P. Q. C. Dwyer, who would have turned it into a very different poem. Anyway, Gloucestershire lost their seventh wicket at 253, and won easily. I much prefer Betjeman's version.
Cui bono?There was quite a stir when Cyril Washbrook's benefit reached a record £14,000 in 1948 - "remarkable," said Wisden. That's equivalent to £351,000 in 2006, according to the Retail Price Index, which isn't bad, though no longer remarkable. Another Lancastrian, Andrew Flintoff, is expected to get several million from his 2006 benefit; one dinner alone was reported to be worth more than £1m.
Flintoff has announced that he intends to give a substantial proportion of his little hat-passing exercise to charity: 50 or 60% has been mentioned, which would be very generous of him. It remains bewildering to me that people should donate money to a man who is already a multi-millionaire. Why don't they just pick a charity, so 100% (indeed, 128% with Gift Aid) can go to a deserving cause?
But other players have less conscience than Flintoff. For a number of years there was a convention that 0.5% of all benefits should go to the Professional Cricketers' Association's own charity which helps ex-players who have hit hard times. Most beneficiaries have ceased giving even that piddling amount, which from a £100,000 benefit is just £500. The PCA is keen to restore the tradition.
Why not be more ambitious? Medieval peasants were expected to give a tithe (10%) of their income to the church. I don't see why beneficiaries should not offer the same to show their appreciation - to the game that sustains them, to the cricket-lovers who supported them, for the sunshine, the fresh air, and a tax system that exempts benefits, and spares them the 40% everyone else would have to pay on £100,000.
The needle and the damage doneFlintoff 's sense of responsibility is not perfect, however. England players generally are more socially conscious than their predecessors. They busy themselves with good works, visiting inner cities and orphanages and earthquake victims - under ECB instructions, of course. But they do so graciously and apparently enthusiastically, accepting their position as role models for the young.
And yet English cricket's two brightest stars, Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen, have had their bodies permanently daubed with massive tattoos advertising their patriotism. In the case of the nouveau anglais Pietersen, there is a natural tendency to think he protests too much. But that isn't the issue. Both seem rather keen on showing them off, thus encouraging their young admirers to get their own tattoos, perhaps depicting attachments that might prove more transient.
My generation grew up in the 1960s and is, famously, rather a tolerant one. But tattoos were decidedly uncool when I was young, associated with drunken sailors who endured a lifetime of regret. Medical removal is still by no means infallible. I think that if sporting heroes wish to indulge in this form of self-mutilation, they should have the decency not to advertise the fact.
Minority programmingIt was the opening day of the Perth Test, the only one of the five where the time difference allowed it to spill over into Britain's meagre ration of midwinter daylight. It was 8.30 a.m. back home. Australia were momentarily on the rack, Panesar rampant, the nation happily listening on the way to work or the school run. (Shhh in the back! This is important!) At that moment (the one when commuters are least likely to have access to TV, the internet or digital radio), Radio 4 left Perth to bring us Yesterday in Parliament.
Have you ever seen how many MPs actually sit and listen to debates? If you didn't laugh, you'd weep.
Summer songThe Oval, Southampton, Canterbury, Edgbaston, Arundel, Chester-le-Street, Old Trafford, Worcester, Headingley. These are the grounds where (subject to fitness etc), Shane Warne is due to bowl for Hampshire in first-class cricket in 2007. If you have grandchildren, take them. If you don't, go anyway - so you can tell them.