England v South Africa, 5th Test at The Oval - Match Preview

Match Preview by Neil Robinson 03/09/03

In the days since England’s crushing defeat at Headingley, the papers have been filled with comment, accusation and rebuttal on the question of how far County Cricket could be said to have contributed to the national team’s poor showing. Speaking reflectively at the after-match press conference, England skipper Michael Vaughan criticized the structure of the county game for not producing players of the same mental toughness as those of South Africa or Australia. “Maybe the fact that we’re not ruthless enough stems from the amount of cricket we play,” he said. While Vaughan’s remarks are not entirely without validity, it is hard to justify the idea that this poor performance by England should be laid squarely at the door of County Cricket.

There were two key moments where England surrendered the initiative at Headingley. First there was the notorious decision of Butcher and Trescothick to come off for bad light on the second evening, and second their shocking bowling display on the fourth morning which allowed South Africa conclusively to take the game beyond them. No doubt the bowling was below the standard expected of an England Test side, but it was no worse than that produced by the South African bowlers (not the product of the English county system) when Butcher and Trescothick ran riot before coming off for bad light. The difference between the two was not the development systems which produced them, but that the South African batsmen made the most of their opportunity, England’s did not.

Which leaves the charge against Butcher and Trescothick looking like the most damning of all, and the likeliest to be blamed upon the county system. It may well be true that the amount of cricket, probably excessive, played by the English counties produces a kind of plodding, path of least resistance state of mind which leads to players usually taking the ‘safe’ option. But I am convinced that the malaise goes deeper than this and that County Cricket is as much a reflection as a cause of the problem. Look at the game below first-class level and you will see what I mean. Every winter young British pros go down to Australia to hone their skills in Grade Cricket. While there, they have to work bloody hard to convince sceptical locals and earn the respect of their colleagues in a genuinely tough competition. The pattern is reversed when overseas pros come to play league cricket in England, especially in the old leagues of Yorkshire and Lancashire which formerly produced so many of England’s toughest cricketers. Not any more. More often than not the overseas pro is seen as the club’s natural match-winner, his local born colleagues content to fill in and do a steady job while the big name player takes the strain. How to account for this disparity of attitude? You certainly can’t blame it on the structure of County Cricket.

The arguments about the structure of the county game usually run along the lines of there being too many counties, too many cricketers playing too much cricket at too low a standard. Well, as far as there being too many counties goes I go back to the old chestnut about Durham. If we hadn’t moved from 17 counties to 18 counties a decade ago, would we have seen a promising generation of young cricketers emerge from the North-East? I refer to the likes of Harmison, Collingwood, Peng, Muchall, Pratt, Plunkett, none of them yet fulfilled, but all of them an indication of what might have been achieved decades ago if Durham hadn’t been left as a backwater of the game for so long.

There is a strong body of opinion which says that the 18 counties should be replaced by 6-8 regional sides, leading to a much less tiring programme and a concentration of the best talent at the top. Nice idea, not sure how it would work in practice. With fewer places available, presumably there would have to be a prohibition on overseas players, while the International calendar would still keep England’s Test stars out of virtually all domestic cricket. Exactly how is that supposed to improve standards? Far more sensible to find some way of encouraging the counties to restrict the number of professional contracts they hand out each year and to hand out as many of them as possible to young cricketers with some hopes of going on to play for England.

But in questioning the amount of cricket played by the counties, Michael Vaughan does have a point. The reduction in the number of three or four day County Championship games played in recent decades has tended to obscure the fact that an awful lot of limited overs cricket is now played at county level. Back in the 1950s, when England could last claim, without fear of contradiction, to have the best cricket team in the World, County Cricket consisted solely of 28 3-day Championship matches. That’s a total of 84 days’ cricket. This year we’ve had 16 4-day Championship matches (64 days), plus up to 18 (in Division 2) 45-over National Cricket League games, up to 7 Twenty20 games and up to 5 50-over C&G Trophy games. That makes a total of 94 days’ cricket. Then bear in mind that 4-day cricket is more of a grind than 3-day cricket, that a one-day game is often tagged on to the end of a four-day game and that one-day cricket, especially the frantic Twenty20 variety, is far more stressful than the comparatively restful first-class game and you have some very tired players on your hands.

Oh, and don’t forget the maddeningly disorganised fixture list which fails to take into account the needs of players or of fans, or the ridiculous amount of travel which is required by it. When Indian star Virender Sehwag arrived at Heathrow Airport in the early hours of May 4th to begin his stint as one of Leicestershire’s overseas players, he was immediately bundled into a car to begin a mad dash up the M1 in time for an NCL game with Glamorgan that afternoon. Following that game, the bewildered Sehwag found himself back in the car again on his way down to Bristol for another NCL game away to Gloucestershire the following day. If that wasn’t enough, Sehwag spent his day off on May 6th undergoing the marathon journey from Bristol up to Newcastle for Leicestershire’s C&G match against Northumberland on the 7th. Poor Sehwag is not thought to have enjoyed his brief and largely unsuccessful taste of County Cricket.

Calls for a reduction in the amount of cricket played invariably worry me, as they tend to focus on the four-day Championship, the only part of the domestic structure which does anything to prepare English cricketers for International cricket. Changes in structure over the past ten years have tended to involve swapping a structure comprising three one-day competitions for a structure comprising three one-day competitions. Sadly, the burden of supporting a massive, fully professional structure has meant that the lucrative TV money brought in by one-day cricket has become too valuable to forego. Perhaps this is the problem which really needs to be addressed.

But to go back to the beginning and look at the causes of England’s defeat at Headingley, let’s start by acquiring that most un-English of virtues; a sense of proportion. England are allowed to lose the odd Test match. Especially against a good side like South Africa who are going to beat you occasionally even if you play well. Especially after all the trauma of having to change captains in mid-series. Especially after losing the services of Caddick and Gough, then Hoggard, Tudor and just about every other quick bowler who would have been in the selectors’ thoughts for this series. Just imagine if South Africa had found Allan Donald’s retirement followed up by serious injuries to Pollock and Ntini, would they not have struggled in this series? When West Indies lost Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith in quick succession they went 20 Tests without a win, but the young bowlers who came through during this fallow period went on to dominate the world for 15 years.

In the light of all this there was something admirable about the England selectors’ refusal to panic when they chose the squad for this week’s Fifth and final Test at The Oval. Only two changes were made, both forced by injury. James Kirtley misses out with shin-splints, Worcestershire’s uncapped off-spinner Gareth Batty returns to the squad in his place, while the broken-toed Nasser Hussain is replaced by Graham Thorpe.

There was a sense of inevitability about Thorpe’s return, but Chairman of Selectors David Graveney gave a strong hint that Thorpe was being viewed as a one game only replacement, describing him as a “like for like” replacement for the experienced Hussain and stressing that it would be a mistake to read into this anything regarding England’s plans for the winter. With the number five slot in England’s batting not yet nailed down, there is clearly still a place for an experienced head at number four. But to pick Hussain and Thorpe together would be a mistake, to pick Thorpe instead of a fit Hussain misguided. In the last two Tests Hussain has shown renewed fire in his belly and demostrated that he remains England’s best batsman in a tight situation or on a dodgy pitch. Purely in batting terms, Thorpe is still England’s classiest middle-order player, but his commitment cannot now be trusted. In three out of the last four years Thorpe has opted out of England’s winter tours for personal reasons, once with advance notice, once at the last minute and once when the tour had already begun. Take the record back one year further, and we find him returning home early from the Ashes tour of 1998-99 with back trouble, a problem which has continued to plague him this year.

England must win this last Test to square the series, but the bowling is going to have to show a drastic improvement if 20 South African wickets are to fall. At Headingley, James Anderson looked absolutely shattered and in need of a spell out of the spotlight. Every over he has bowled since early May has been on live TV. That’s a tough school for a young lad still learning his trade. Martin Bicknell bowled well at the start of each innings, but faded quickly each time. He remains troubled by a hamstring problem and England would be taking a risk by playing him. Kabir Ali bowled reasonably well in his first Test, but few were convinced that he would take wickets in less helpful conditions. He seems to lack the accuracy essential in a Test bowler of his limited pace. Commendable though the selectors’ consistency is, there must have been a strong case for looking outside the squad at someone like Yorkshire’s Steve Kirby or Kent’s Martin Saggers. But England have stuck with their current crop of youngsters and the thing with kids is, you never know what you’re going to get . Early in the series, with the country filled with optimism, they failed to deliver the goods. Now, with everyone wondering where England’s first wicket is coming from, they might just do the business!

On a sentimental note, it was great to see Geoff Boycott back on duty in the commentary box for Saturday’s C&G final at Lord’s. After his recent battle with cancer, it was a genuine pleasure to hear that familiar Barnsley drawl with its usual mixture of unarguable common sense and no-holds-barred opinion. Welcome back Boycs! The match itself was a one-sided affair, won with some ease by Gloucestershire. Prolific South African all-rounder Andrew Hall, released by the touring squad to play for Worcestershire in the game, got out cheaply, bowled like a drain and dropped a simple chance at slip. Personally, I blame the structure of South African domestic cricket.

England Squad for The Oval

  • MP Vaughan (capt)
  • ME Trescothick
  • MA Butcher
  • GP Thorpe
  • ET Smith
  • AJ Stewart
  • A Flintoff
  • AF Giles
  • MP Bicknell
  • JM Anderson
  • SJ Harmison
  • Kabir Ali
  • GJ Batty

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