A mysterious paradox

I have always been a letters man: a bloke who preferred descriptive reading to number crunching. But one set of unexpected figures pulled me up with an awakening jerk this week. I was leafing through the Wisden Cricketer Magazine when I came across the International Cricket Council's Test and One-Day International ratings. There I discovered that whereas England stood second to Australia in the Test championship, it languished seventh in the limited-overs table, just ahead of the West Indies and the "minnows" Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Kenya.

Of its batsmen, only South African import, Kevin Pietersen, gained a mention in the top 10 performers in either code. The other batting heroes of England's 2005 Ashes triumph, Andrew Flintoff, Trescothick and Andy Strauss dragged their feet in the 20th, 21st and 24th positions respectively. Bowlers, Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison could do no better than 17th and 15th spots in the honours list. More alarming for the "Barmy Army" supporters of England's fifty-over team was the statistic that Flintoff's side has lost eight of its last 10 ODIs.

There is a mysterious paradox in these tables, for in almost every instance, England prefaced its defeat in the shorter version of the game by winning or holding its own in a prefatory Test rubber against the same opponent. The $64,000 question is: how can this be, when the basic skills of both formats are part and parcel of the same game?

Recently England had defeated South Africa, and Pakistan in Test rubbers, drawn series with India, and Sri Lanka only to be comprehensively beaten in subsequent limited-overs competitions against the same sides. As the American physicist and educator, Dr. Sumner-Miller used to say on television: "Why is this so?"

Firstly, it has to be said that in a cricket era dominated by a few star players who could change the fortunes of limited-overs games in the space of a few overs, England's one-day team suffered more than most sides by losing many of these key performers to injury — when they could least afford such depletions of their strength.

Vaughan's dicky knee cost his side a potentially outstanding captain and a sound opening bat. Trescothick's enigmatic withdrawal from the Pakistan/Indian tour robbed the side of a natural, if inconsistent stroke player. Giles' hip, Simon Jones' knee and Freddie Flintoff's heel could not have flared at more unfortunate moments.

It must be added that England's misfortunes have been exacerbated by the programming Mandarins in Dubai who have piled on the possible burn-out factor of more than 20 limited-overs matches against Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka in a few short months. But what at first appeared to have been a series of untimely misfortunes, might yet end up by introducing the consolation of a therapeutic injection of youth into the side and the additive of experience to the games of men such as Bell, Pietersen, Plunkett, Trample and Monty Panesar. The injuries of today may provide a timely stimulus for a youthful future England side.

The irony of England's apparent and current inability to come to a successful accommodation with the one-day game is to be found in the fact that a high percentage of its stars took their first steps towards fame in the weekend and recreational game — the format of which is almost exclusively one-day and sometimes limited-overs based.

Batsmen Vaughan and Trescothick — bowlers, Hoggard and Harmison — and all-rounder Flintoff each scored their first runs and took their first wickets in one of the hundreds of Leagues or thousands of clubs which dot the English countryside. However, not since the bowling days of the great Sidney Barnes has an England trundler been able to step from a club into a Test side. In the absence of a first-class structure in Sri Lanka it is still possible to do so in that island — and perhaps that is what makes the island cricketers such accomplished one-day performers.

But for English players to represent their country they must first win their spurs in county ranks. They must demonstrate to the selectors — by the sheer weight of runs in the scorebook, or the number of wickets they take in county games — that they are worthy of the three lions on England's blue cap. To win this distinction their talents must be attuned to the demands of the English first-class game. And what are the required standards of the 19 county sides? They are the standards of a totally professional sport: an assessment based not merely on the competency of its skilled players, but also on the evidence of its organisation.

English county cricket is played by sides drawn from professional staffs of 20 or more players, each contracted to employers to play for six or seven days per week, for six months of the year. Importantly for our discussion it is a game, which since the 1860s, has been based on a competition founded on matches of three or more days duration.

The passage of years has witnessed some experimental departures from this formula. I remember playing for a Rothman's Cavaliers team in a one-dayer at Grimsby in the 1960s; a game staffed largely by Springboks exiled from international circles because of their country's hated apartheid policy.

Encouraged by the success of such games the Gillette Cup followed in 1963 and the Sunday League in 1969. A washed-out Anglo-Australian Test in 1971 was replaced by the first one-day international in Melbourne — the logical sequence of which was the inaugural World Cup competition of 1975. The abridged one-day competitions have pepped up the pace of first-class cricket around the world.

A little bit of a cynic however, I still feel that in traditional England, following SOD's law, the game sometimes slows down to fill the time available to play it — and that the lack of urgency in three-day county games governs the effectiveness, or lack of it, in the performances of England's limited-overs players.

The absence of inhibiting professionalism in players hailing from outside the British Isles enables them to give free rein to their character in the manner in which they play in one-day matches. In this context, I am reminded of the young Yorkshire opening batsman who, on going out to begin the innings for the northern county, was instructed by his senior partner at the opposite end to shun the flamboyant cut, pull and hook like the plague and concentrate on defence for the first day or so at the wicket.

In the first over he faced, the youngster struck three boundaries: an impetuous tactic which prompted a mid-wicket conference and his partner's stern rebuke — "What do you think we play this game for, lad? Fun?"

More men with the initiative of this youngster, or players like England's Pietersen, would certainly boost England's ratio of wins in its next 10 ODI's and hold out brighter hopes for next year's World Cup.