Treating cricket like civil service

TED CORBETT

DECEMBER 9. It's a rotten week-end for the despised Poms. They lose to New South Wales, when Steve Waugh hits three successive sixes to clinch the match and two days later they go down to Australia `A' when it seems easier to win. So sportBritain goes into another debate: What is the cure for this malaise? The answer is in a story told to me 20 years ago about two batsmen friends. One joins Yorkshire and the other goes to a county in the south. They discovered after a couple of seasons that they can score 1,500 runs a season without much effort. In order to extend their careers they decide that they will cut back their annual aggregate so they will still be able to achieve the same numbers when they are in their 40s. Their scheme works. They have long careers but, since each August they cut back their run-scoring to keep within their self-imposed limit, neither plays for England and neither is now remembered.

In truth, although as far as I know no-one else settles on this scheme as a form of old age pension, there are far too many cricketers in England who do no more than they have to, who treat cricket like the civil service, with benefits, wage structures and a retirement scheme. "Too many of our young cricketers see the game in the same terms as if they are in the police, teach in a government school or work for the local council," a wise man tells me years ago. These professionals play cricket as if they are going to work, they never aspire to be captain of their county and if someone says they ought to be in the England side they declaim "I don't want all that hassle. Chosen for a Test or two they console themselves that it may help them get a better contract with their county and if they are out three times in a row for low scores — and therefore dropped — they will still have their county cricket to fall back on. They probably think they are doing their best for their county when they play on into their late 30s, take a benefit and a testimonial and fill the space that ought to go to young upstarts; instead they are clogging up the whole system. Until benefits are abolished, players encouraged to find work outside the game and to retire early — unless they are England material — our Test side will never make a mark in the world. Don't hold your breath because this way of life is so engrained that any suggestion of an update brings violent condemnation.

December 10. The bush fires are raging all round Sydney, the farmlands are parched but here is the rain and temperatures plunge to their lowest since 1924. Rejoicing everywhere except among the fans of Steve Waugh, robbed of a last chance to prove he is the man to bat No.7 and bowl a few overs for Australia because a warm-up match at North Sydney Oval is cancelled. Can't he see that even the gods have set their face against him continuing? Oh, and by the way, England lose in a rain-hit match against the Prime Minister's men at Canberra. Nothing new there then.

December 11. It is four years since the confessional of Mark Waugh and Shane Warne in a dramatic Press conference at Adelaide Oval that has overtones of the old show trials behind the Iron Curtain. Has cricket progressed in the meantime? No. The late Hansie Cronje has been exposed — and the plane in which he dies is a showpiece in South Africa - but if reports by the investigators are true and if a private conversation I have with a major official is reliable there is still plenty of nastiness just over the horizon, a bit like a bowler cleared of throwing. As Dennis Lillee reminds us, the chucker still needs checking out all the time.

December 12. Mali Richards, son of the great Viv, flies into Sydney to play grade cricket. He will start with Eastern Suburbs junior sides but if confidence, genes and a place in the Middlesex line-up next summer are any indication he will be in their first team, well maybe the week after next. Mali is 19, left-handed and he wants to be "the best cricketer there has ever been." Of course, the Aussies like that sort of talk and he will go down really well in Sydney if he can walk the talk as well. But wait a minute. Don't I remember one Liam Botham beginning his career with Hampshire with a four-wicket haul, being hailed as a chip or two off the old block and then quietly fading into the background and a place in England's Rugby squad after a very short time.

Liam did not want the constant comparisons with his father. So how will Mali — note the anagram from Liam — cope? "Dad tells me not to think about the pressure that much. I can't be like him. I just play my game." Good luck, son, you will find the pressure gets worse.

December 13. For once the Barmy Army are quiet. Not a song about the convict origins of the Australians, not a defiant chant, hardly a banner as they watch three-quarters of the first one-day game at Sydney Cricket Ground and then stream off back to their hotels. When our work finishes we retire to a public house and that is full of cricket fans; but these are Australians chanting for Ricky Ponting or Steve Waugh. Let's hope the recent run of defeats has not knocked the fighting spirit out of the Army.

December 14. Watch out for that batsman wicket-keeper Ryan Campbell. He's a neat keeper but he also has an inventive mind: as he shows by lobbing straight balls over his own head and the wicket-keeper to the boundary. That helps Australia `A' — the second best international side in the wide brown land at the moment — beat the Sri Lankans by 103 runs and points up the fact that not only are Australia a great side but that there are plenty of young men waiting in case the old 'uns ever decide to quit.

December 15. After the Melbourne one-day game Shane Warne's injury gets most of the attention; but what about the ground improvements and the crowd control. There is an ugly gap, full of machinery and building materials which distract from the match. But how Henry Blofeld would enjoy the passing traffic, those long grey local trains and the road trains heading into the Outback with supplies for those hardy souls who live there. Afterwards the police claimed they were satisfied with the level of crowd behaviour but they made eight arrests despite all the warnings and two gentlemen wearing nothing much ran on to the pitch. And, in contrast with the usual pattern, tried to rugby tackle the security men.

December 16. "May I look in your bag, sir." "Yes, but I am a media person and you don't ... " "We inspect all bags here, sir. It's for your own safety. We are being very security conscious in view of the world situation." I walk to the inspector of bags. "Why are you showing me your bag, sir. You've got so much computer stuff in there, there's no room for any alcohol." Australia used to be a country of prisons and too many of the war<147,2,1>ders have survived. My experience round the world is that while security men may look inside a great many bags at airports, railway stations and cricket grounds they very rarely search them thoroughly.

December 17. A commentator on the Australian Broadcasting Company says mid-way through the England-Sri Lanka one-day match at Brisbane that Sri Lanka "need 233 to avoid the follow-on" and a couple of hours later Judy, the official scorer, reads out the final result as "Victory to Queensland by 43 runs." I'm not sneering. We all make mistakes.

December 18. Nice to know that the Australians can make mistakes too. Their selectors, faced with a booklet 90 pages long, full of sub clauses and footnotes and remarks such as "This section must be read in combination with paragraph 41a (b)", fail to spot the essential truth that, in most circumstances the final 15 for the World Cup must come from the 30, announced three weeks earlier. Oh dear! Shane Warne is injured and, in the opinion of many medical people, not certain to be fit in time. After repeated clarifications the Australian authorities discover that in the event of an injury this condition may be changed but it does underline the need for precise writing and reading of rules and regulations. I am sorry to have to say, that the most recent set of Laws leaves quite a lot to be desired if you are looking for a definition. Perhaps they should be edited by someone with a feel for the English language; a factor clearly lacking at the moment.

December 19. As the temperature soars beyond the baking 40oC mark, yet another commentator thinks he will put in an opinion. "Sri Lanka's Chaminda Vaas is about to bowl his sixth over. He will not be able to bowl many more in this heat.'' Clearly a man who will benefit from a trip to Colombo where 40oC and 90 per cent humidity are commonplace.

December 20. The New Year is just around the corner so it is time for the Diary Awards 2002. Team of the Year. No question, it goes to the grim-faced, merciless men in the baggy green caps. Bowler of the year: Glenn McGrath, as consistent in fitness after 52 successive Tests as he is in line and length. Batsman of the year: Michael Vaughan, from several strong contenders, and you can call it a personal prejudice of mine. Veteran of the years: Michael James Stewart, nearly 40 and as smart, in every sense, as ever, 8000 Test runs to the good, quick behind the stumps, savvy whether batting, bowling or talking. Newcomer of the year: Mohammad Kaif. I could watch that boy bat all day and one day he will.

December 21. Of course it's not just about today. Tomorrow's team: India. Tomorrow's captain: Sourav Ganguly. Forget their previous bad performances abroad. they can win the World Cup by the power of their batting; although I wonder if they will win their cash battles with ICC by the power of their arguments. On the field I defy any team to set them a total. As they showed at Lord's in the NatWest final against England they have no nerves in the run-up to a big total and the decision to use Rahul Dravid as a wicket-keeper tips the balance of their side so neatly for South African conditions that will suit Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh that I cannot see how they lose. Under a captain who gets tougher by the over India are my team for 2003.

December 22. What shall I buy as a jokey gift for the blind swap at our Christmas dinner? Lacy underwear in the hope that it goes to a shy young man? A book of nursery rhymes for this blokey gathering? A pair of scales from a dolls' house to underline the weight added by some of my colleagues recently? Really, touring does present some of the most difficult problems.