A bonny bunch of fighters


THEY are shorn of stars and short on glamour but no-one can deny that Nasser Hussain's England are a bonny bunch of fighters.

Not surprisingly they have many of the characteristics of Hussain: sportingly polite, accommodating to the point of helpfulness and happy-go-lucky smilers in their ordinary life, but tough as Gurkha infantrymen in the white heat of battle.

This past two winters we have seen that spirit in Pakistan where they floundered, picked themselves up and finally squeezed over the line in the last few minutes under the cloak of darkness.

They repeated that performance a few weeks later in Sri Lanka when they lost the first Test and then turned the Test series on its head to win 2-1. We will conveniently forget their woeful showing last summer in the Ashes and tri-series; there were too many England injuries to make either tournament a fair contest. Besides Australia were so superior that even a fully-fit England would have played David to their Goliath.

Four months later they turned up in India without Alec Stewart, Darren Gough, Andrew Caddick, Robert Croft and, eventually, Graham Thorpe and, after losing the first Test managed to get the better of the second and third matches although they were drawn.

Now they have gone from the prospect of a 6-0 defeat in the one-day series to draw 3-3; and left that to the last minute as well.

(There cannot be much wrong, by the way, with a series that is still open on the fifth ball of the final over of 600. Or is my love affair with one-day cricket blinding me.)

There was something of the way the English soldiers fought at the Somme in their rise from the dead in the last few overs of the matches at Delhi and Mumbai. A beaten side found the energy, the passion and the guts to climb back into the match and you cannot ask for more.

I bet John Wright wished some of his stars had shown the same commitment.

Of course, England played it hard which upset some of the Indian commentators in print and across the airwaves; but what did they expect?

For all Marcus Trescothick's runs, Darren Gough's ability to bowl the last few overs and Ashley Giles' wickets, they are a team without a world class star. Graham Thorpe ought to be at the top but nothing has gone right in his life recently and England may be forced to accept that for a while at any rate he will be a talented passenger.

So, like Hussain who has a clearly marked ceiling to his ability, England must fall back on hard work, the team ethic, and stick to a corporate plan as they fight for every inch of territory. The result is not always pretty. Hussain's heroes will not give ground any more than Russians would back off in face of Napoleon and Hitler.

I have to tell you that during the last month some of the England paymasters have been offended by what they see as bad behaviour.

Gough's farewell to Sourav Ganguly at Ferozeshah Kotla was hotly debated. Some thought it might be a good idea to tell the England coach Duncan Fletcher that Gough needed a flea in his ear; or some stronger disciplinary action. Spitting on the pitch, sledging in general and grumpiness in the face of the enemy has also been cited as unnecessary.

But until England find a batsman who can score 1,500 Test runs in a calendar year, or average 25 wickets a series, or field like Jonty Rhodes they will obtain their successes only by putting their shoulders to the wheel, listening to Hussain and Fletcher and sticking together.

They won the last two matches - when a lesser squad might have sacrificed both games - through attention to tiny detail.

In both games, Giles, a fielder whose mobility is handicapped because he is 6ft 4in and 14st, saved boundaries in the final over by diving on the ball close to the fence, bringing victory by two runs and five runs respectively. Andrew Flintoff, another giant, flung himself around as if he was the new Olga Korbut; while James Foster grew from the fumbling child who appeared in the first Test at Mohali into a cool, thinking adult in 62 days or, to be more precise, 20 days of international cricket.

It is only two months since Giles fully recovered from an operation that halted his cricket throughout last summer. Two years ago Flintoff, then a waddling 17st 12lb, was mocked because he was the same weight as Lennox Lewis, now the world heavyweight champion. At the end of last summer, Stewart appeared on television and admitted that although he had played in a championship match against Foster he had not noticed him.

Flintoff gave visible evidence of his determination to become a fully professional all-round cricketer, of the success of his shortened spell at the England Academy in Adelaide and his new body shape by whipping off his shirt at the end of the sixth match.

I guess that there will be those at Lord's who will frown on that gesture. It is 30 years since MCC, now a much reformed organisation with ideas as sparkling as their new architecture, posted notices around their ground informing the public that it was not the done thing to remove one's shirt in what they regarded as sanctified premises.

The announcement added that anyone who showed his upper torso in such an unseemly way might be ejected from the ground; and there was an implication that MCC membership might be withdrawn. Those were the days!

I can tell you that there are plenty of people who organise the game who still think such gestures should only be seen, to tut-tutting all round, on the football field when ruffians and low-lifes gather in their thousands because they are too stupid to understand cricket.

Sometimes I think I have joined the ranks of these old-fashioned sporting rulers.

In the last few weeks I have become increasingly concerned about the bonus point rule which has been used in Australian one-day cricket this season when the tri-series has been battled out against South Africa and the rejuvenated New Zealanders.

Once Stephen Fleming, the Kiwi captain, admitted that he had made no effort to win their final game against South Africa so that Australia would miss the final, all sorts of visions and scenarios occurred to me.

If the rules suggest it is an advantage to one side to lose a match or even toss away a bonus point, can it be long before deliberate defeat is accepted as a tactical move in all forms of cricket?

A twisted image of Hansie Cronje and Mukesh Gupta crossed my mind. Heaven forbid that any rule might add legitimacy to their history. Surely not.

Call me straight-laced, call me a determined climber towards the moral high ground, call me an idealist, if you like, but I want my cricket played by men of unimpeachable honesty, who press for victory from the moment each game begins, who will risk everything to win, who leave it with honour.

As usual Richie Benaud summed it up best. "To think that for 20 years I lay awake at night thinking what I might do to win and now these people lie awake thinking how they can lose." It's not cricket Benaud cherishes and it's not the way I want the game.

One of my most cherished memories is of Kapil Dev hitting four sixes to ensure India did not follow on at Lord's. Bold, daring, exciting; rare cricket and a rare privilege to be present.

Knowing that the No. 11 Narendra Hirwani was the only other batsman on show, he went for broke; and in the spirit of the moment Hemmings kept tossing the ball up in the vain hope that Kapil might hole out to Mike Atherton in front of the Nursery End sightscreen. There are no stepladders outside fire stations that would have allowed Atherton to get near any of those enormous strokes. That was the stuff of which one Indian cricketer was made ten years ago and this current England side are in the same fighting mould.

If only they had a player with Kapil's charisma, power and skill.

One day Flintoff may fill that role but in the meantime England will find glory, if not regular success, by sticking to the all-together-lads method that has served them so well in the Hussain era.