Saturday, December 11, 2010

I will not cease from Mental Fight, Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand

Journalists and newspapers around the country, (not to mention retired players of great repute), are exhibiting the puzzled workings of their brains over selection issues, especially the question of just what Nathan Hauritz has done to be so bitterly cast out into the cold. Could the truth indeed be so petty that the captain, after butting heads with Hauritz on the issue of lines in India, demanded his removal while simultaneously advancing the suit of young Doherty? Did Ponting place his nepotism over the interests of team and country? There is plenty of controversy we could mull over but as no doubt dear readers you are discussing this amongst yourselves already, there is little point in adding my dull thoughts to the cauldron. Trust to providence and however bizarre the workings of the Australian Cricket administration might seem let us hope that these four men, who have a vast experience in the sport and have made it their profession to oversee the selection of our team (thus devoting all their energies to the pursuit rather than their idle conversation at the pub as with you and me), shall bring us through these travails. My plea does smack of 21st century political apathy but I cannot believe that these gentlemen are making such odd decisions without some greater sense and purpose behind their actions.

The country is in turmoil though. Reading the latest censure this morning coming from Stuart MacGill, I was struck by some noticeably different comments of his I read not so long ago. This is not an isolated case. Back tracking and head scratching seems to be all the rage. As there is nothing we can do my friends apart from witness what is to occur let us be prepared. Perhaps we will witness Australia gather like the resplendant phoenix, a grand renewal ushering the last fruitful stage of Ponting's captaincy along with the foundations made for a new order. More likely though there lies disaster before us. Like the descending Titanic or the aghast Germans as the reperations of the Great War were heaped upon them, we will observe in helpless anguish as our nation crumbles and is humiliated. Take heart and courage for though it will be horrific, the experience will also be edifying and will cure us of some vices. Namely arrogance.

Let us leave Australia for now though. I would like to discuss this recent ascendancy of the English considering its permanence, and its place the post-war context of cricket in the country. 2 years ago the English cricket team was utterly, and very publicly, derailed. Having begun to recover from the southern Ashes humiliation with a promising summer against South Africa, for the second time the English cricket administration errored in promoting their spunkiest player to the captaincy rather than he who might be most suited to the role. In Pietersen's defence he seems to have been quite courageous on the field as a tactician and leader, however his well known willful, pervicacious, and prickly temperament seem to have savaged all off-field stability. To their merit the English cricket board rectified the dire situation with wholesale change. Pietersen was axed but to assuage his anger the affable but seemingly weak minded Peter Moores was shoved as well. Rather than make conservative retreat to the comparative but ultimately uncertain safety of Michael Vaughan, the correct decision was made to put the two most level headed and professional men in charge.

It was an oversight not to give Strauss the office a long time before as he is so cool and steady at the tiller. While I occasionally find some of his decisions to be lacking in verve, he is the perfect man to lead this English squad without an ego to trouble anyone elses. It is to Andy Flower that most of the plaudits seem to go though and with good reason. The focus and discipline which the revered gentleman has brought to the side is incredible. He has fostered unity in the squad and created a postive atmosphere in which his players feel free to express themselves. To hear even a buoyant Kevin Pietersen gushing like a child at Christmas about the joys of the dressing room brings home the fact that this is a very different English team to the one we are used to.


The recovery from the Pietersen/Moores catastrophe has been little short of remarkable. Certainly the start made in the Wisden Trophy tour of the West Indies was far from propitious. However the team regrouped in such assured fashion as to reclaim the Ashes a mere six months after their bedraggled nadir. The subsequent tour of South Africa was frustrating for several reasons but the remainder of 2010 has been a triumph for England. Their dominant performance in the Twenty 20 World Cup carried more integrity than was even possessed by the fledgeling competition and successful routs of Australia and Pakistan paid proof to the new professionalism of England. The Adelaide Test has been their most successful outing so far and the question now is whether this is the apogee of a flash in the pan, or the latest step in something seemingly impossible for England. Having convinced all these past fifty odd years of being the most frustrating team in the world to support, momentarily delighting fans with moments of great brilliance only to crumble into a disappointing slop, England appear to promise more now than they have in a long time. While it is slightly premature for such conjecture, I would like to countenance the idea of a great Strauss/Flower, and presumably, subsequent Cook era.

England have not been convincingly good at cricket since Peter May's tenure in the 1950's. I realise that to many cricket history seems unutterably dull as it is little more than a list of names, dates, and figures. Bear with me and I will try to relate some of the colour of this last great period of English cricket. Peter May was the final strand in the great line of gentleman English cricketers. Tall, handsome and charming, he was a superb strokesman of class and elegance, effortless in style and prodigious in the scoring of runs. May inherited the captaincy from the great Len Hutton and, despite the accolades, his tenure was certainly not without it's faults. As a leader he often lacked imagination and his record is marred by failure in later years, most noticeably in two Ashes trouncings. Despite this though for the way in which they carried and exerted themselves May's England were truly great.


The captain's adjunct was Colin Cowdrey, born on an Indian tea plantation and later to be the Baron of Tonbridge. Cowdrey's technique was perfect and he was a dominating and imposing batsman. Though at the height of his powers immediately following the war, Denis Compton, the English counterpart to Keith Miller, resurged as the side's effulgent all-rounder. Compton is known for his gallantry with a breathtaking and show-stealing charm far more forceful and loud than that of May. He was also a very good footballer and took both the league title and F.A. Cup with Arsenal. Godfrey Evans was the greatest keeper ever seen at that time and vies with Alan Knott for being England's finest player in the role. Further he invented the idea of the wicket-keeper batsman, especially as an entertainer. Less chronicled but no less significant in the side were the bowlers such as Jim Laker who took 19 wickets in a test, and Tony Lock the modest but sure spinner.


At this time colonial teams were flourishing. Pakistan made their debut and each nation sported truly formidable teams (apart from New Zealand). This was a great period of international cricket. The achievement of May's team was to stem this threat and for the final time stamp English dominance on this most wonderful of sports they invented. Though matters began to unravel after the disastrous Ashes tour of 1958/1959, May's side were victorious over every test nation, often in difficult circumstances. Since that time England have floundered. Some would point to Ray Illingworth's tenure of three years without defeat but really this was diligent and dour determination, more boring than convincing. Though great individuals have emerged and fantastic series have been won, England have never seemed a force of any consistency.

The sadder truth though has been that the English have lost interest in cricket. Though still nominally the nation's summer sport, it is jeered by the greater mass of the populace as a rarified waste of time for toffs and those would want to give themselves airs. Certainly it still has its very loyal and dedicated followers, but the country is in general interested in football and football only. It seems difficult to believe now that cricket was once played with the same avidity by London street urchins as the youthful economic elite of Harrow and Eton. To what extent the post-war decline of public interest in the sport is the cause or result of England's declining fortunes is not a matter we have time to discuss. What is evident though is that cricket lost touch with the English. The ploys of limited over cricket have been ephemeral in their success and it seems unlikely that the game will ever regain its place of affection in the modern nation's bosom.

What is interesting though is that England's latest success has been built upon recognition of the nation's multicultural identity. There have been jeers about having four South Africans in the team and an Irishman with his boot half in the door, but in truth this is a representation of how England now is. South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders have utilised the colonial heritage and resided in the capital to their economic advantage for decades so I feel it warranted that they play for the adopted nation. Indeed the initial precedent was set by no lesser personage than Ranjitsinhji in 1896. The colonies aside, I think it would be wonderful to see some of the other emigres make up the side. I feel certain that the Polish are not pulling their weight. All that can be done to foster such development should be, it is a matter of concern that the county system has introduced a new set of restrictions to curtail international involvement.

England the proud land of old order no longer is. The idea of a blue blooded English side is not merely impractical, it is hogwash. I have a collection of English verse which mythologises the subject and would like to quote from the anthologist, A.N. Wilson's preface,

England is no more... We stand in what appears to be a remote meadow land, and hear not the song bird, but the distant roar of motor traffic. We attend cathedral worship, and hear, not the words which have echoed in those stones since the reign of the first Elizabeth, but alien, jarring words, injurious to faith as well as repellent to the ear. We are of a generation that has never seen an old market town unmarred by thoughtless town planning, intrusive road signs, tactless functional building, and aggressive emendations to the doors and window frames of buildings which have stood since the time of George III. We have watched those characters familiar in fact as well as in nursery rhyme - the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker - replaced by out-of-town shopping malls, and supermarkets. We have seen corn exchanges turned into mosques and old parsonages made into the second homes of hedge-fund managers.

Less controversial, and more heartening than naturalised players, is the increase in recent years of native English players of different ethnic backgrounds. Monty Panesar, Ravi Bopara, and Ajmal Shahzad are but the newest stock in a tradition that goes back 50 years to Raman Subba Row.

This is incidental to the matter I really want to discuss though. That is are England now capable of being a dominant force, establishing an era and restoring dignity to their nation? For the present it is far too difficult to say. They still need to press forward their advantage over Australia into a victory but even if that proves to be the rout promised it will be of small international consequence with such a stricken foe (though certainly it will be of great consequence in terms of the Ashes). It will be England's performance over the next few years that will display the team's worth, particularly against the globally pre-eminent teams of India and South Africa. The World Cup in March will certainly be of interest, but of greater pertinence is the Indian tour of their country in August. England won't face South Africa again until 2012 but this would be the next great test. This is of course assuming that England swat Sri Lanka in June and New Zealand in the southern summer with the assurance one would expect from a dominant side. It does seem bizarre to speak of England in this manner but this does now seem a very palpable possibility and really it would only be healthy for the game. England will have to convincingly defeat all of the other test nations in the world before it may be granted to Strauss to have presided over an era as significant as Peter May.

My instinctual mistrust of England's sporting prowess still screams to me that this is all a flight of fancy and the team is certain to fall to failure soon. However I have written in this fashion all along and am being consistenly proved wrong. As our own nation collapses into ignominy then perhaps there is some small solace to be taken from the possibility of us standing on the verge of a historical epoch.

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