Hardly the stuff of disasters

TED CORBETT

"Since the announcement of his departure Steve Waugh is called the greatest of all captains but that is a big statement," says the author. — Pic. AFP-

NOVEMBER 24: After two matches are called off because of heavy rain and the one-day international series comes to an end, surprise, surprise, bright sunshine. The England one-day players fly home; the Test men Nasser Hussain, Graham Thorpe and company fly in to their first net session and a warm-up match against Sri Lanka `A' starting on Wednesday. The Sri Lankan writers are far from impressed with the standing of the England players and one reporter goes so far as to call them the "worst side from that country ever to visit these shores." Come, sir, one defeat is hardly the stuff of disasters. Another scribe, a doctor, yearns for the days of Colin Cowdrey who, he says, will add starch to the England batting. Yawn, yawn. I wish I have a shilling for each time I see Cowdrey and players of that era be given praise as if they are gods. In truth, Cowdrey is the most gifted batsman of his time, but lacks the need to score heavily. He is an amateur and that guaranteed him a place in his county side and gives him special entry to the England team. "If only he plays for a proper county," Fred Trueman sighs. "Then we will see what a great batsman he can be." Instead Cowdrey knows he does not have to practise, hops over the fence at Canterbury two minutes before the start of a county game knowing that his deputy has taken the toss. Cowdrey says cricket is an art form not a competitive game. "The trouble with you Yorkshiremen," he once tells Trueman, "is that you think cricket is all about winning." Years later Trueman grumbles: "That is the way I am brought up. Winning is everything as far as I am concerned." Now if Trueman is England captain they may not be bowled out for 88 at Dambulla.

November 25: Rain days are a contentious issue since England decline to restart weather-hit matches the next day, Sri Lanka do not want matches to continue on a second day and England say they cannot play after the third game because their one-day international players are booked on a flight home. Sorry, but what are the priorities here? Surely some sort of compromise can be reached so that one of the two games at Premadasa is finished if only for the sake of the thousands of British fans who pay out hard-earned cash to travel to Sri Lanka during the state of emergency, a condition quite unknown in their own country. Michael Vaughan, the England captain, puts up the quite ridiculous argument that his men cannot be expected to play three days in a row. Why not? They are not being asked to play three days of 100 overs each as the rains almost always cause a problem — although there is no rain on the middle day. The games ought to be scheduled for daytime and run into two days if necessary. I am afraid I have no sympathy with the view that the players are overworked. England, for instance, bring in specialist one-day players for the three matches in Bangladesh and the three in Sri Lanka spread across 17 days. Hardly slavery, is it? The monsoons come to Sri Lanka before Adam and Eve meet here, so the weather conditions are not a surprise, yet the two cricket boards contrive to mess it up.

November 26: So Steve Waugh will play no more; what a pity. It is hardly a surprise although he must desperately want to continue until he wins in India. Perhaps he hopes an overwhelming success in the upcoming series will prove his point. Since the announcement of his departure he is called the greatest of all captains but that is a big statement. No question about his statistics or his influence on a strong Australian team or his using the baggy green symbolism to increase team unity or what the coach John Buchanan calls his place in Australian society. But is Waugh really better than Len Hutton who never lost a series and who turned a losing side into Ashes winners in 1954-55? Of course, the Australians will not accept Douglas Jardine as a candidate since his innovative use of Bodyline overpowers them with tactics now illegal but he is another giant in English cricket. They don't like Mike Brearley either because he is a winner. So too is Ray Illingworth, a tactical master who makes the best of poor resources in 1970-71 and who is older than Waugh is now before he begins to lead England. I will throw only one other name into the hat; mainly to upset the Aussies who are already on the back foot after England's Rugby World Cup final win. What about Arjuna Ranatunga the Sri Lankan leader who may not win everything — with the notable exception of the 1996 World Cup — but who, daringly, takes on the Aussies at their own sledging, chattering game and turns a small nation into contenders for the leadership of world cricket?

November 27: Having said all that I admire Steve Waugh enormously. I see his first Ashes Test back in 1986 when he looks too frail for international cricket. I see his huge advance in 1989 when he wins a Test series on his own and I watch his progress to statesmanship ever since. It is a word I choose carefully. An Aussie captain with dignity but without pomposity; some people may say that is a rarity. A cricketer with a social conscience; you don't find 11 of them in every team. A batsman and a captain who attacks whenever the chance comes along. A man who speaks his mind in private or in public; an honest man; a walker in an age when few batsmen obeyed that old convention; in other words a sportsman with an almost Corinthian attitude towards his game. Old-fashioned in the best sense of the word; defiant whether dealing with opponents or his own selectors; successful as a batsman who will finish with — at least — 10,660 runs and 40 wins in 57 Tests; a bowler of mixed up medium pace who greets Viv Richards with a couple of bouncers much to that kingly batsman's annoyance. Steve Waugh is one of a sort and a worthy successor to the line of Australian captains that includes Don Bradman, Ian Chappell, Joe Darling and Warwick Armstrong; all tough guys who put their cricket on, if you will forgive the pun, a Waugh footing.

November 28: I am not sure whether an attempt is ever made to bribe any of the England selectors but they have a chequered history. One is so deaf that his fellows sit him out of hearing range if they want to discuss a player they knew he will not like. One is chosen because he had a travelling job, which enables him to get around the county games and a third refuses to watch any county cricket. Yet another confesses he never sees a Test before he selects teams for his country. Who needs to bribe people like that?

November 29: We dine in one of Colombo's most famous districts with two men about cricket. One receives any number of calls on a busy cell phone informing him of the imminent arrest of a famous local personality on serious charges; but we learn next day that police call at his house and find the bird had flown. Other tales are told of godfathers, who can make demands of the police, call up henchmen to do evil work and ensure that contracts are kept. So we are not completely reluctant when we climb aboard a bus and head for the seaside holiday town of Hikkaduwa to prepare for the first Test.

November 30: Those of us who have an occasional bad night's sleep tend to blame jet lag or worry or even excitement but for one of the best known personalities on the cricket circuit sleeplessness is such a regular occurrence he is no longer bothered by it. Some nights he does not sleep at all; on other occasions he wakes very little time after his head hits the pillow. One night he goes to bed and wakes completely refreshed. "What a good night's sleep," he thinks, gets dressed and goes downstairs for breakfast. There he finds that the restaurant is full — of dancers, merry makers and party-goers in evening dress. It is 10 minutes past midnight.