They come more for fun than fare

Is there so much wrong with the English game? We don't win all the Tests we should, so our World Cup record is scratchy, and we have too few world beating players; but the game is vibrant.


Andrew Flintoff is a great favourite of the crowd. — Pic. REUTERS-

AUGUST 25. Is there so much wrong with the English game? We don't win all the Tests we should, so our World Cup record is scratchy, and we have too few world beating players; but the game is vibrant. Just look round Headingley as England sink to defeat. Men with solemn faces, ladies staring at the pitch as intently as any television pundit; kids with painted faces, girls joining in the cheering, taking part in the knock-about games, queuing for autographs; toddlers, believe me, on their fathers' shoulders providing a new generation of support. Out in the pubs, the restaurants, the coffee bars and the bistros, the conversation is still all about cricket. Of course this is Yorkshire where cricket is a religion and a visit to the Test is a pilgrimage; you can write The Canterbury Tales all over on the bus that conveys the faithful to Headingley each morning. I repeat: cricket in England is, to the man in the street, no longer a search for England triumph, but an entertainment. Perhaps it always is; we are rarely on top for long. So the crowds enjoy the batting of the stout-hearted Gary Kirsten, the urgency of Andrew Hall and the class of Jacques Kallis as if they were in the stalls of the theatre. These spectators desperately wish for an England win, but if that is not to be, they will stand to applaud the stars from any side. Besides, there is always the dream that one day a great champion will arise. Hence the great wave of glee that goes round the grounds now when Andrew Flintoff comes on to bowl, or strides out to bat. He has taken to looking round when he hears them shout "It's Freddie, come on Freddie," as if to signal the arrival of Pavarotti, or the Rolling Stones. Their voices say "Now we shall have some fun; Freddie will give us an hour of entertainment; lets not miss a moment of his performance." Yes, it is not too far fetched to suggest they love this big, stern-faced man, particularly when he is at the crease, his bat hardly big enough to stretch from his grip to the ground, his body hiding the stumps, his new-found athletic shape suggesting great strength and agility to spare. So when he hits out, and the ball soars into row 12 of the East Stand the whole crowd rises as if to follow the ball. They note that he hits the ball with a clean swing of the bat; in contrast to Ian Botham who, in the days when he hit 80 sixes in a summer for Somerset, gives the ball an extra flick as he makes contact. Freddie — a far more apposite name that the dignified Andrew — is a great favourite, no doubt about that. People smile, or even laugh out loud when he comes into bat or even at the mention of his name. His fans, that is to say 100 per cent of those watching, love this amiable giant for himself, see him as separate from the rest of the side, wish him to do well not matter what the result. He is, in their eyes, a champion, a treasure, a pleasure to watch and savour. While he is playing England need have no fear their fan base will evaporate. He is their saviour. Perhaps they should make him captain, at least at home, and let the roar of the crowd bring on victory whoever England play.

August 26. Michael Vaughan says the county game does not produce cricketers who are tough enough for Tests; the combined executives express "disappointment" at his remarks which they claim are untrue. That is what you may expect and both have some right on their side. Take Ed Smith, clearly a bright young batsman with a proven record of county success. He makes 63 in his first Test innings but as soon as the South Africans put some pressure on, he makes 0, 0 and 7. Lack of toughness? It sounds like it although there may be other factors. So with half a dozen players in the one-Test wonder category. But it is also true that all the England stars — Alec Stewart, Nasser Hussain and Vaughan — put in years of county service before they make it to the England team. My opinion is that long term county experience will produce men tough enough to be successful in Tests. Anthony McGrath is a case in point. We all know that he is not a combination of Dennis Lillee and Sunil Gavaskar but he is a solid middle order batsman who can bowl more than the usual five overs and take a catch or two. It is precisely what he achieves but long before he has time to settle in the team McGrath is jettisoned with no hint of a return. I repeat: the selectors have had a terrible season and it must be time for a change. If Rod Marsh, one of the gang, is made chairman and links up with Tom Moody as coach we will be able to discover whether the Australian influence can make our cricketers as tough as the world champions.

August 27. Jimmy Anderson does not want to attend the Cricket Writers' Club annual dinner. Perhaps he is, aged 21, tired after his rise to Test strike bowler only a year after opening the bowling for Burnley third team. It is a big leap for a young lad and his learning curve has been steep. So we must be forgiving if occasionally he makes a bad judgement and remember that there are a number of people who will help him along the way. Meanwhile his main need is a rest after all the excitement of the tri-series in Australia, the World Cup, the Tests against Zimbabwe, the tri-series in England, and the Tests against South Africa. So sometimes he thinks the world is bad-mouthing him. One day he will understand that when a team loses, as England went down at Lord's, by an innings and plenty, they may have played badly and that those who point it out are not necessarily villains, lay-abouts and sad cases.

August 28. The selectors delay the announcement of the team for the final Test. Are they really so concerned about the fitness of their fast bowlers? Or are they still arguing over Graham Thorpe, fine left-handed bat, but a man uncertain over his priorities. Family or cricket? that is the question. Inside the dressing room there is a feeling that he does not deserve another chance. In the selection committee there are two meetings lasting a total of 11 hours with Thorpe at the centre of the debate. My own feeling is that, after four tours on which he fails to complete the trip, and one acceptance followed by a quick refusal, it is time to look elsewhere.

August 29. Jimmy Anderson turns up at our dinner, looking smart and conveying his thanks to those who give him support. The occasion is its usual jolly self although we are sad that Ali Bacher, Mr. South African cricket, is not able to speak to us and that there is a hitch in the performance of his 12th man Barry Richards, who needs expert questioning from Christopher Martin-Jenkins to bring out his memories. The highlight of the evening comes from the veteran John Woodcock, still an active writer at The Times, and able to amuse us all. Geoff Boycott cannot be present. He arrives in London so late, after a breakdown by his train, that he decides a good night's sleep will be more profitable for his first commentary stint for a year.

August 30. Another brief Lord's final, finished with 30 overs of the Gloucestershire innings unbowled after a Worcestershire collapse. Unless the glamour match, played in front of a full house, finds a new formula, it is in danger of losing its way. Already the Benson and Hedges final disappears; cricket cannot afford another gap in the calendar, despite the success of the Twenty/20 competition.

August 31. At last we find the right man to put together a history of the Cricket Writers' Club for our new website. It will be Alex Bannister, still lithe and active as he approaches his 90th birthday.

The perfect man to launch that exciting new project, sometime before Christmas.