Now that the evenings are drawing in, and with the football season already starting to rumble alarmingly into gear, the Ashes are at last under way. It’s bad luck for England that, while we do seem to have the strongest and most spirited side in years, so too does Australia.
England have certainly improved. But to overcome Australia, it may not be enough merely to be obdurate: England will need to find from somewhere the confidence required to set the pace, and not just try to follow it. There were scary signs, in the way they lost the last Test against Pakistan, of a reflexive retreat into the defensive mentality that served the team so badly for so long. Having been set a large target, they opted for four-square defence when, as schoolboys say, the best form of defence is often attack. It was a game that might have been easier to win than to draw. By surrendering the high ground, England allowed Pakistan to swarm around the bat like wasps, when the only hope was to keep them nervous and out of range.
It was a shame that the players and coaches seemed unable to see that a glorious failure would have been preferable to that unenterprising defeat: English sports fans thrill to nothing so much as valiant losers. But our cricket culture tends to see professionalism as hard-nosed defence, not hard-nosed attack. Professionalism means rebounding from a setback, and continuing to play with vitality. Instead, we form squares, daring our opponents to attack. We can hardly be surprised when they accept our kind invitation.
England might take heart from the British Lions, who didn’t just thump Australia in Brisbane, but danced an Irish jig all over them. By far the best part was the news, after the event, that all of that mercurial running wasn’t actually in “the game plan”. When Jason Robinson flew over for that opening try in the third minute, it represented a dismaying loss of discipline. If things had gone to plan, it emerged, he would never have received the ball at such a recklessly early stage.
England’s cricketers, under Nasser Hussain and Duncan Fletcher, made impressive strides in resisting the morose strategic impulses they inherited. In truth, it isn’t very complicated stuff to believe that boosting players’ confidence, rather than cutting them down to size, can be productive. The Australian batsman Tom Moody told a nice story last week about the World Cup semi-final, when his side, somewhat against the odds, beat South Africa. He came out to bat at a tense moment in the run chase, and his captain, Steve Waugh, came to greet him. “We’ve waited a long time for this,” said the skipper. “I’m backing you.” This was thrilling. “I felt a foot taller,” Moody said (no simple matter: he’s about ten feet tall as it is).
It contrasts markedly with the cussed, jeering approach of the usual English pro. Legend has it, when Mark Ramprakash once went out to bat following a duck in the first innings, that he was told: “Good luck, son. It’s your last chance.” He must have felt a foot shorter (no simple matter, as he’s not exactly a giant to begin with). It isn’t like that any more, thank goodness. But beware: if you hear a senior England spokesman use the word “consolidate”, the game will probably be up.
The other day, I was brooding on the possible remedies to all this as I played a knockabout game of cricket in a London park. Alas, there were all too many signs that the once-national game is dying. There is not the smallest respect for or interest in it any more. People see no reason why they should not walk their dogs across, rather than around, the pitch. Footballers use the boundary as a goalmouth, so the ball is forever bobbling across the pitch. And picnickers laid out their rugs, backs to the game, right in the firing-line. Three non-spectators were whacked by balls bouncing over the boundary, and all of them looked not just annoyed, but astonished. Where the hell did that come from?
It was sad, in a minor sort of way. But it did strike me that Test cricket could profitably change its rules to accommodate some of the finer points of the friendly game.
– If anyone shouts “He’s out!” or “Yes, he’s gone!”, it automatically means the batsman is not out. This works in the back garden; why not at Edgbaston?
– If the non-striking batsman is run out without having faced a ball, the fielding side will deem the other batsman out, on the grounds of simple decency.
– If the game is dying, the umpires may switch to tip and run.
– Each side shall field at least one American, so that players can giggle helplessly at some highly unfunny jokes about baseball.
– Every fielder must bowl at least two overs, so that everyone has a go.
– If an umpire shows signs of being about to give an lbw decision, he may, at the discretion of the batting side, be replaced.
– Children of the fielding side can field every now and then, to confuse the batting side and, more important, to foster a love of the game in the young. Recommended position: short leg.
– Anyone unlucky enough to drop a catch will be required to bowl the next over, to avoid feeling bad about things.
– The umpires may invoke a new law, 942.1b, and deem a batsman out if he has, in their opinion, hogged the strike or in any other way outstayed his welcome.
– Bowlers shall be permitted to ask the umpire to hold their ice cream, but have no right to complain if it returns partially eaten.
I’m pretty sure that Waugh, Ponting and co would welcome these amendments. Quite what the Boycotts up in the commentary box would make of them is another matter.