Clubbing a club side

ZIMBABWE are hardly Test class so it is difficult to assess the England performance in the first match of their series at Lord's which the latter won by an innings and 92 runs.


Mark Butcher caned the limited Zimbabwe attack to run up a century. — Pic. MIKE HEWITT /GETTY IMAGES-

ZIMBABWE are hardly Test class so it is difficult to assess the England performance in the first match of their series at Lord's which the latter won by an innings and 92 runs.

Nasser Hussain's men shrugged off an injury list long enough to make a Gulf War general shudder, they showed the technique and the application to battle through the difficult first day after Heath Streak had rightly asked them to bat first and their bowlers unstitched the Zimbabwe batsmen for small scores.

What more can you ask?

Zimbabwe are in the hat containing the worst sides who have ever turned out in Test cricket; the 1959 New Zealand side here was another and Bangladesh have made their own case for inclusion.

So there is no need to ask that England should forget triumphalism; the facts of this one-sided match are self-evident.

I suggest this was a fine victory but that it means nothing in the England attempt to find a team that will compete with Australia, the Holy Grail among all Test-playing nations. The signs that there may be a change in the wind at the top of the Test table are elsewhere.

For instance, the two debut heroes of this Test — Roses men Anthony McGrath of Yorkshire and James Anderson of Lancashire — may grow into regulars but not as men who bowl out top flight batsmen and score half centuries without breaking sweat. That is what they achieved at Lord's and they may have set themselves a false standard in the process.

There are signs that McGrath, who has been in the wilderness since his days as an ace in the Under-19 squad with Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick, will turn into a fine Test cricketer. Not an all-rounder to rate a mention alongside Ian Botham but as a player who pays attention all the time.

Meanwhile, the men who pick the sides and the coach Duncan Fletcher have great faith in Andrew Flintoff who admits he needs more consistency. If he fails again once he is fit there may be a place for the solid workmanlike qualities of McGrath who did nothing wrong in this chance in a lifetime.

Anderson, 20, the first debutant with a five-wicket haul since Dominic Cork in 1995 and the youngest to make such a mark since Test records began, has far greater potential. This Lancashire bowler can achieve everything Brian Statham achieved and perhaps more.

If Darren Gough gets fit and Andrew Caddick's foot injury heals there may not even be room for him in the England Test sides against South Africa later in the summer. He is tomorrow's man when Gough and Caddick are sitting in the commentary box or the pavilion and I have no doubt he will be an accomplished fast bowler.

Just round the corner however are a stack of young England players. There is James Troughton, nephew of one of the actors who played Dr. Who in that long running TV series, and Bilal Shafayat, born in Nottingham of Pakistani parents, and Kevin Pietersen, who is qualified for England since his mother is English. All three might be England batsmen in the near future and Shafayat, the Under-19 captain, and Pietersen bowl as well.

Chris Read, James Foster and Mark Wallace are promising young wicket-keepers; put one of them in the England side and choose Michael Vaughan as captain instead of Hussain, and suddenly there is a youthful look about the team that might mean success in the long term.

Have the selectors the courage for such bold steps? I suspect the answer is no.

Immediately after this match Duncan Fletcher was asked if Mark Butcher was now likely to be chosen for the one-day matches, essentially as a replacement for the busy, dab-and-run, controlling middle-order batting of Graham Thorpe.

It was not so much that Fletcher indicated that the answer would be a negative but his manner. He said that the subject had been debated previously and that there was no reason to change now.

Add to that the belief by Hussain that — in the words of football's philosophers — "you win nothing with kids" and I am afraid that you can come to only one conclusion. The success in this match will be ignored and that as soon as possible England will revert to the old formula.

Hussain in charge, Alec Stewart behind the stumps, Caddick bowling perhaps with Gough and Flintoff at No. 6 or No. 7 trying to hit the ball into the rear seats of the stand. I am convinced that the Australians would see the situation differently although I am not in favour of Antipodean remedies as a cure-all for every cricket ailment.

Is it time that Hussain was allowed to go? There is a school of thought that thinks he should be replaced before the South African series in the second half of the summer. I wonder if that is too soon and expect that the two winter series in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka would be the ideal starting point for Vaughan who is now established in the public mind as Hussain's natural successor.

When we look back on the early part of the 21st century I am sure we will see Hussain as the tough and dynamic leader England needed after years of failure. We will understand that he played his part in what ought to be greater times under Vaughan.

Australian selectors would have no hesitation in replacing him now as they — ruthlessly in the opinion of many, logically in my estimation — got rid of Allan Border and Mark Taylor and as they will shortly replace Steve Waugh.

These are not nasty men, determined to distress Test cricketers still in their prime. They are seeing the bigger picture, looking after the future, making sure that the line of succession is maintained. Not "The King is Dead — Long Live the King!" but ensuring that the new captain is at his peak when he is given the crown and that the first consideration is the long-term good of the team.

In England we are, I am sorry to say, much more inclined to think sympathetically of how well the captain has served his country, of his great deeds and of his future. It is the wrong attitude and it must cease forthwith.

As for Zimbabwe, what is there to say? They have lost Andy Flower, who is with Essex and Henry Olonga, who spent the whole of the first Test waiting his turn to commentate for Channel 4 or performing various other duties connected with his new trade in media affairs.

Perhaps if there is a change in government in Zimbabwe he and Flower may choose to pick up their bat and ball for their country once again. They are desperately needed.

At this moment I am not convinced that a Test against Bangladesh would necessarily go Zimbabwe's way. The bowling back-up for Heath Streak is moderate, the fielding is patchy and the batting without a star. "They are a club side,'' said one old international and went back to his golf.

Four years ago I wrote a similar piece when Ed Giddins, now with Hampshire, his fourth county, bowled Zimbabwe out at Lord's and England won at a canter. Two weeks later Zimbabwe almost levelled the series.

The spectators who saw both those matches were probably at Lord's for this game. On the first day the rain spoiled their day, on the second they did not leave the ground until 7.02 and on the third play finished, with three lights showing that sighting the ball must have been difficult, at 7.33.

A spectator who has to travel 50 miles to watch a Test probably has to get up at 7 o'clock for a start now brought forward to 10.45. He sits all day at the match and leaves at 7.30 and then travels home.

He may have had value for his 30 pounds sterling ticket, his train fare and his food but does he return to his home satisfied with his day at the cricket. I suspect — from the evidence of friends — that he is extremely unhappy. He would rather be able to say to his wife, or parents, or children that he will be home at some fixed time so that they can enjoy an evening together.

Until that happens grounds will remain half empty, receipts will continue to fall and sponsors will lose interest.

Test cricket is a pleasure to the aficionado, the home of the specialist watcher, and requires a high level of understanding. But it does not have to continue from early morning until the street lamps begin to glow.

The sooner it ends at a fixed time the better.