Million-dollar question

Tim Ambrose... fine hundred.-AP

The New Zealanders are already in tatters as their best players — unwilling to risk the best judgement of their selectors — make their fortunes while they can, writes Ted Corbett.

To contract or not to contract? That was the question that emerged from the second Test in New Zealand, won by England only a week after they had sunk to one of the most wretched defeats of all time.

It was, of course, a battle in which contracts were defended as essential by the modernists while the old-timers attacked them as being featherbeds on which idle youths lounged knowing they did not need to raise a finger because the wages kept flowing into their already bulging bank accounts whether they bowled a maiden over or even ran in aggressively.

They argued that if there were no contracts the impulse to succeed would always drive players to higher achievements, that the lazy guys would soon be sifted out and that every team would be better.

They pointed out that Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard — dropped by England — had contracts which meant they could take it easy and then turn in performances as inept as the ones that helped England to perform so badly in Hamilton, a word now spat out by English commentators in the same tone historians use of Hitler, Saddam Hussein and Attila the Hun.

(Oddly enough, three hours flying time away another Hamilton, Louis of Grand Prix fame, was beginning a new season with a win for the British team McLaren.)

That argument is, as Scottish law has it, not proven. Contracts enable players to ensure they make a full recovery from injury, gives the coach power to determine how the player works during and after a match and — usually — gives a better wage structure.

After the defeat in Hamilton the critics had a field day.

The horror of Harmison was too much for Geoff Boycott who gave a heartfelt summary which included the thought that Harmison was not earning his contract money. No Yorkshireman likes to see good money wasted but even a spendthrift could not help but sigh over Harmison’s fall from grace.

Besides, however strong the contract, however willing the player to perform, however cleverly worked out are the tactics, strategies and plans, there is always the unexpected from the opposition and the influence of Lady Luck.

Not to mention those unpredictable little monkeys, the selectors.

Take the 1956 Test at Old Trafford. Laker’s Test if you are English; the Test played on an unmade road if you are an Aussie.

You may have missed in all the reports of great bowling, a bad pitch and the poor reactions to defeat from Australia, that Fred Trueman was omitted and his place taken by Brian Statham who had been injured.

The selectors told Trueman he was left out because he was tired after all his efforts in the previous Yorkshire match. It is one of the few times that “tired” and “Trueman” have been used in the same sentence and it was not justified.

Just one example of selectorial misjudgement.

There was another on the eve of the Wellington Test. England had been bowled out for 110 at Hamilton and yet — you could just not make this up — two bowlers were dropped.

In 1950 the MCC selectors chose their tour team for Australia and discovered after endless discussion that they had 17 players without an off-spinner. “The Aussies cannot play spin,” said one, “we had better include an off-spinner.” So they did. In fact they rejigged the team to include three — and missed out Laker.

So the England team went into the second Test in Wellington without Harmison, who had missed the start of the tour so that he could be at the birth of his fourth child, or Hoggard, who looked as if he needed the practice.

Their places were taken by Stuart Broad, young, raw, promising with a wobbly action and L-plates big enough to fit a 44-tonne lorry and James Anderson who had — stupidly in my opinion — been allowed to play for Auckland and to bowl 38 overs.

His bowling, on a pitch that sometimes hissed with venom and sometimes simply helped the batsman add fire to his strokes — in other words the perfect surface for a decent game of cricket — won the match although the Man of the Match trophy went to Tim Ambrose who scored a century in his second Test.

Between the two of them England gained a lead of 144 on first innings and then batted on — including 20 minutes for Monty Panesar and Anderson to bat on the fourth morning — until New Zealand faced an impossible task even though almost 12 hours remained to score 438.

Not surprisingly, they failed by 128 runs even though the New Zealand wicket-keeper Brendon McCullum, taking guard outside his crease and starting his advance down the wicket before the bowler was level with the umpire, threatened to win the game all on his own.

As you know I am not famous for daring predictions but one day some team, somewhere, will make one of these huge scores and then some captain will have so much jam on his face he will rightly be described as a doughnut.

In the week before the third and final Test there was time for the Kiwi authorities to apply their brains to the way their best players were prepared to sacrifice time at the start of the England tour next month to earn barrow loads of dollars in Twenty20 matches.

A compromise has to be reached. Malcolm Speed, that wise man of ICC, is leaving; perhaps he has put a solution behind his desk for his successor. We are only at the start of this money rich business, no one knows how quickly or how far it will spread and it is time the administrators — as well as the fast bowlers — earned their keep.

The New Zealanders are already in tatters as their best players — unwilling to risk the best judgement of their selectors — make their fortunes while they can.

England have a tragedy on a human as well as a team level. As they were putting the finishing touches to their win in Wellington there was an all too familiar report from Heathrow Airport.

Marcus Trescothick, one of the world’s best slip fielders, a sharp brain and a fine left-handed batsman, was seen catching a bus back home. He had decided he could not face a trip even though it was only to Dubai for a series of pre-season warm-up match with Somerset.

Don’t ask why; it hardly matters. But from the romantics who hoped he would return, to the kids who wanted his autograph or thought they might one day emulate his straight driving, or the old folk who were just grateful for his part in the return of the Ashes it was a miserable moment.

I will never forget him standing at first slip at Old Trafford, begging the crowd to get behind Harmison as England sought to wrench out the last Australian batsmen. Now we all have to accept that we will not see him again and that maybe Harmison has played his last Test, marking the end of the 2005 Ashes side.

No contract, no matter how binding, is going to prevent that sort of tragedy.

The Scores

Second Test, New Zealand v England, Wellington, March 13-17. England won by 126 runs.

England — 1st innings: A. Cook c McCullum b Oram 44; M. Vaughan b Oram 32; A. Strauss c Sinclair b Mills 8; K. Pietersen b Gillespie 31; I. Bell c McCullum b Martin 11; P. Collingwood lbw b Gillespie 65; T. Ambrose c Taylor b Mills 102; S. Broad b Oram 1; R. Sidebottom c Bell b Gillespie 14; M. Panesar c McCullum b Gillespie 6; J. Anderson (not out) 0; Extras (b-5, lb-15, nb-8) 28. Total: 342.

Fall of wickets: 1-79, 2-82, 3-94, 4-126, 5-136, 6-300, 7-305, 8-335, 9-342.

New Zealand bowling: Martin 20-1-80-1; Mills 30-4-86-2; Gillespie 20-2-79-4; Oram 29-11-46-3; Vettori 8-0-31-0.

New Zealand — 1st innings: J. How c Strauss b Anderson 7; M. Bell b Anderson 0; S. Fleming c Pietersen b Anderson 34; M. Sinclair c Ambrose b Anderson 9; L. Taylor c Ambrose b Anderson 53; J. Oram lbw b Sidebottom 8; B. McCullum c Strauss b Broad 25; D. Vettori (not out) 50; K. Mills c Bell b Collingwood 1; M. Gillespie b Collingwood 0; C. Martin b Collingwood 1; Extras (lb-8, w-1, nb-1) 10. Total: 198.

Fall of wickets: 1-4, 2-9, 3-31, 4-102, 5-113, 6-113, 7-165, 8-176, 9-180.

England bowling: Sidebottom 17-3-36-1; Anderson 20-4-73-5; Broad 12-0-56-1; Collingwood 7.5-1-23-3; Panesar 1-0-2-0.

England — 2nd innings: A. Cook c Fleming b Mills 60; M. Vaughan c McCullum b Mills 13; A. Strauss lbw b Oram 44; K. Pietersen (run out) 17; I. Bell c Sinclair b Oram 41; P. Collingwood lbw b Gillespie 59; T. Ambrose b Oram 5; S. Broad c McCullum b Martin 16; R. Sidebottom c How b Gillespie 0; M. Panesar c Taylor b Martin 10; J. Anderson (not out) 12; Extras (b-6, lb-5, nb-5) 16. Total: 293.

Fall of wickets: 1-21, 2-127, 3-129, 4-160, 5-219, 6-231, 7-259, 8-260, 9-277.

New Zealand bowling: Martin 24.4-4-77-2; Mills 23-5-59-2; Oram 20-9-44-3; Gillespie 15-1-63-2; Vettori 15-2-39-0.

New Zealand — 2nd innings: J. How c Bell b Sidebottom 8; M. Bell c Ambrose b Broad 29; S. Fleming b Broad 31; M. Sinclair c Bell b Anderson 39; L. Taylor lbw b Sidebottom 55; J. Oram c Pietersen b Sidebottom 30; B. McCullum c Sidebottom b Panesar 85; D. Vettori c Cook b Sidebottom 0; K. Mills lbw b Sidebottom 13; M. Gillespie c Ambrose b Anderson 9; C. Martin (not out) 0; Extras (b-1, lb-10, w-1) 12. Total: 311.

Fall of wickets: 1-18, 2-69, 3-70, 4-151, 5-173, 6-242, 7-246, 8-270, 9-311.

England bowling: Sidebottom 31-10-105-5; Anderson 15-2-57-2; Broad 23-6-62-2; Collingwood 9-2-20-0; Panesar 21.3-1-53-1; Pietersen 1-0-3-0.