The dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists


TWO hours before the start of the Trent Bridge one-day international between England and Sri Lanka and already the main road outside the ground is thick with spectators, dodging across the road between the moving cars as they make their way to the entrances.

There are only 15,500 places and all the tickets have gone; although one optimistic young man persists in offering me "as many tickets as you like at face value" as I walk the 400 yards from the packed car park to the Press Box.

It's not just because we are at Trent Bridge, the one remaining local ground - in contrast to the big city arenas in London, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham, at any rate - run by hospitable men who always make you feel welcome whether you are a high-ranking England and Wales Cricket Board official, or a working man who has just paid a few pounds at the door.

I love everything about the ground, the Nottinghamshire club with its long-lasting traditions and the locality. (Rumours say there are seven girls for every lad in this city. No wonder the boys flock to the place.)

Most of the spectators are serious young men out to enjoy the one-day games that are increasingly popular even in England; with everyone except the game's conservative rulers.

I'm not the only one in this country who thinks the bosses are dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists unable to appreciate the thrills of one-day slogathons. Nasser Hussain, the captain of England, feels he does not get enough support for his efforts to bring the team to the peak needed to win the World Cup; but there is another problem.

By the way, the Indian journalists who have travelled over with the team are hanging on to every word Hussain says, and not just because he was born in Madras. They love the way he speaks his mind, how aggressive he is even at a Press conference, and wish their own captains were built in the same mould.

Hussain and Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, want their players to have more one-day games so that they can improve their technique and understanding. To that end the England and Wales Cricket Board have scheduled a tri-tournament for the last two years. Hussain and Fletcher want their men to have more rest too.

Last year England were abroad from mid-September to the beginning of April on four different tours as every nation tried to cash in on the abundance of television money on offer. There is no sign that the strenuous effort required is about to diminish and the England management cannot have all the benefits they want.

Look, guys, there are only so many days in a year.

Already players face burn-out, more of the top players like Darren Gough and Alec Stewart will have a winter off occasionally and there is room for a new clause in their contracts stressing the need for proper rest.

I asked one recent Test player how he coped at the height of his career. "It's fine as long as you don't start thinking about the schedule. You just go from one day to the next, taking rest when you can, trying not to look at the big picture. That way you get through.

"Of course, you keep reminding yourself that you have to gather in what you can while your short career lasts and you just keep going."

This man, not one of the greats but a commendable enough Test batsman, prefers to remain in the shadows. He understands all too well the mental strain of those who hit a peak.

Together we watched a telecast of Pete Sampras struggling to defeat on an outside court at Wimbledon and we both knew what he was thinking and how high was his stress level.

It was written all over his grimace: "What in the name of sanity am I doing here, playing on Court No. XX, when only a few years ago I was on the show courts all the time winning this tournament without breaking sweat." With those thoughts going through his mind defeat was probably inevitable.

This other problem is not confined to England, nor to the international game, nor to bowlers; although that is the way it is often presented.

It is a universal concern that permeates every championship from the dressing rooms at Lord's, to the spectators and television viewers, to the Press Boxes and even I guess to anyone who is involved on a regular basis.

There is simply too much cricket.

It was probably the arrival on the Test scene of Bangladesh that tipped the balance because since they were promoted - well beyond their capabilities - the game has crept into the hot days of the northern summer in Pakistan, India, Colombo and even, in a recent one-day series against Pakistan, in Australia.

Cricket in the cold in Australia in June when Rugby takes over and even their most hardy avoid the beach? It sounds like an outlandish practical joke but, as teams build up towards the World Cup, games are being squeezed in anywhere and at any time. In Morocco, in Sharjah, in Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur; anywhere a TV company can provide coverage and the right sponsor be lured into the money trap.

It's the eternal triangle to beat all man-wife-mistress threesomes. Play an interesting game, get TV coverage and tell a sponsor. You should make at least enough money to last to the end of the week and if you have any management skills you will make a fortune.

But have the boards who run the game in the ten Test-playing countries the right skills and have the men they appoint as coaches and managers the ability to control the lives of their charges?

That is the key question as at the moment the answer appears to be "No." Dermot Reeve screamed at the top of his voice during the Channel 4 broadcast of the second one-day international at Lord's when James Kirtley took the one-handed catch that Dermot called "the greatest catch I have seen in my life."

Reeve was a considerable player who led Warwickshire to many titles, took brilliant catches himself and went on to coach Somerset. So you would reckon he knows what he is talking about.

David Lloyd, once the England coach, enjoyed the catch so much he wanted to discuss the finest technical point. "Just as the ball went into James's fingers and his arm hit the ground, he curled his wrist ever so slightly so that the ball would not be jerked out of his hand."

Most of the pundits thought it a great catch; in my view it was one of the half dozen greatest of all time.

I have a nomination for a greater effort but this is a purely personal viewpoint. I was right on the spot.

A group of us were talking to Derek Randall, a fielder in the Jonty Rhodes-Roger Harper-Chris Lewis class, at deep mid wicket during a game at Palmerstone North in New Zealand when he cut off the conversation. "Hey, quiet, lads, I'm fielding," he said and set off infield.

At that moment Ian Smith, the Kiwi wicket-keeper, flat-batted a short ball hard and low toward Randall who ran hard towards the ball. It fell short but he dived forward to his full extent and held the ball in his fingertips.

It was a stunning effort, in front of half a dozen special close onlookers and a couple of hundred spectators. Randall the clown took charge afterwards.

He picked up the ball in his left hand and, with his back to the wicket, threw it perfectly into Bob Taylor's gloves. (Sometimes I think I dreamed that bit, but Bob has just confirmed my memories).

"That was the greatest catch," I said to Randall when he rejoined us on the boundary edge. At that moment another aspect of this strange man took charge.

"Don't ask me about it. I'm not talking to the Press. Just put 'c Randall b Foster' in the paper. No comment. Nothing to say. You saw it, you write about it. If you want to say it was a nice catch, that's up to you. As for me, I have nothing to say."

Unravel that little puzzle if you can.