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23 July 2001

I’ll clutch at a straw before I throw in the towel

By Robert Winder

You can tell it’s summer. There’s an Ashes Test match at Lord’s, the British Open is teeing up in Lancashire, Wimbledon has been conquered by the biggest Split personality in sport, Arsenal and Man Utd are agreeing to pay footballers as much in a week as the PM gets in a year, and the rain is setting in. Oh, and England are losing.

The glum reaction to Australia’s pulverising win in the first Test seemed overcooked, if only because it used up too many of the pejoratives we might need later on. England have just enjoyed two of the best years in recent memory. A single defeat, suffered by an injury-hit team against one of the best sides in the game’s history, was neither surprising nor a sufficient reason for the outbreak of breast-beating that it provoked. It was especially sad to see many so-called experts singling out for blame the very thing that has inspired England’s improvement: the central contract system that allows top players to opt out of county cricket. This is what has allowed England to deploy a consistent spearhead – Gough and Caddick – for the first time in ages. At Edgbaston, they were both off-colour, but it seemed sad to blame this on their not slinging it down against Sussex or Durham the week before. You can argue that the one-day series (in which England also performed poorly) was unhelpful to our bowlers: one-day cricket encourages you to stray from the length you need in Test cricket, to “mix it up”. But Australia seemed to manage the transition all right.

You could just as well argue that the England team ended up containing too many players – Ward, Butcher, Afzaal – who have been doing laps on the county “circuit”. And it was a sign of the time warp which English cricket still inhabits that the notion of Darren Gough as captain was so widely pooh-poohed. It is an axiom that bowlers can’t be captains, but this is not based on any striking evidence that they are less good at it (Richie Benaud, Ray Illingworth and Wasim Akram are all examples of successful bowler-captains). Rather, it is a hangover from the days when the batsmen were all gentlemen, nosing into Lord’s in their sports cars, and the bowlers were professionals, working men paid to get sore feet doing the donkey work.

Things have changed, but perhaps not fast enough. The Benson & Hedges Cup final, played in front of 10,000 unsold seats, provided alarming evidence of the continuing decline of the county game. When will the message hit home that England’s subsidised professional circuit fails on two counts? That it does not engage the public on its own terms, and that it is also a poor finishing school for international cricket? If only we could shut at least half of it down and reallocate the money to sponsor the smartest young players to spend winters in Australia.

If cricket is flagging, then golf is booming. Thanks to the Ryder Cup, golf gets the sports fans’ juices flowing a little faster these days; and thanks to Tiger Woods, the game has a less jacket-and-tie image than it used to have. As a television spectacular, it resembles cricket in the room it gives commentators to chat and chunter. “Ah, the greenkeepers’ nightmare,” murmured Alex Hay the other day, when the camera paused to watch a flock of Canada geese leaving messes all over the course. “But I suppose everyone’s entitled to their own way of life.”

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After Wimbledon, this sort of thing comes as a relief. Tennis is so fast and repetitive that it has no time for kindly banter. But that doesn’t excuse the voyeuristic pleasure the commentators seem to take in the glimpses they are given into human frailty. Behind the microphones, the game seems entirely a matter of who will crack first. Errors are never put down to a tactical glitch or technical lapse. We are invited to ascribe them to a weakness of temperament. “Well now,” they kept saying about Goran Ivanisevic, as he aced and double-faulted his way to that terrific Wimbledon victory. “Has he got the courage to win?” No one mentioned what was obvious, even to a once-a-year tennis dunce: that Ivanisevic, in extremis, had given up on his second serve entirely, figuring that if he kept pounding away at full strength, the aces would outnumber the double faults. As a tactic, it took poor old Pat Rafter out of the game altogether. It was fraught; but not, as it turned out, wrong. And it was much more gripping than any amount of grimy chat about the man’s “nerve” and “desire”.

The other summer sports give commentary a better showcase. Golf, in Peter Allis and co, and cricket, in Richie Benaud, have a couple of the oldest hands in the business. They grew up in the era before 24-hour sport on the telly: they don’t see themselves as cheerleaders. They are both old pros, so one shouldn’t bemoan the old boys’ act that cricket’s commentary box increasingly indulges. But how widely, I wonder, are these attractive jobs advertised? A good number of the present crop do nothing more than recycle the cliches they grew up with. When pressed to explain one, they simply refer us to another. A “jaffa”, they tell us, is a rib-tickler that invites you to smell the leather, one that does a bit off the pitch and, well, you just hope you’re not good enough to get an edge. Last week, Graeme Fowler berated England’s Ian Ward for, er, “chasing a wide one”; only a few minutes later, Ward lashed a similar ball for four, and up popped Fowler again, this time to criticise the bowler. “Width,” he asserted without so much as a blush. “You can’t afford to give these left-handers width.” Talk about having it both ways. Those of us desperate to hear someone being wise before the event were left wringing our hands, clutching at straws and throwing in the towel.