A whole new Board game and more, 1995

Further notes by the Editor

Matthew Engel

On a July morning in 1994, Warwickshire lost the toss against Derbyshire and were forced to bat on a green pitch at Queen's Park, Chesterfield. Of the 22 participants, 21 found batting anywhere between difficult and impossible and, but for the one exception, the Test and County Cricket Board's pitchfinder-general, Harry Brind, might well have been racing up the motorway, siren wailing, to consider the question of a 25-point deduction.

Brian Lara scored a century before lunch, a performance of effortless, almost superhuman, dominance. It was not his most famous innings of 1994, perhaps not - who can say? - his best. But, by happy chance, I was there. So were a couple of thousand others. For every one of us, the memory of his batting on a summer's day on one of the world's most beautiful cricket grounds will remain in our personal treasure-house as long as the mind's eye still functions.

A year ago these Notes mourned the retirement of Ian Botham, David Gower and Viv Richards and wondered whether a new generation could bring forth similar giants to replace them. Then along came Lara. Thus the game renews itself, by a process as mysterious and magical as the springtime.

No cricketer in history has had a sequence like Lara had in 1994, when he broke the world's two most important batting records within seven weeks. It requires a certain cast of mind to want to score 375 and 501; Gower would not have been interested, no more would Jack Hobbs. But though he is a calculator, Lara is also an instinctive entertainer; in him, the three often irreconcilable aims of a professional cricketer - personal success, collective success and pleasure for the onlooker - come together in glorious conjunction.

On distant fields - they did not collide in 1994 - Shane Warne did the same, continuing the revival of leg-spin, and concluding the calendar year by taking a Test match hat-trick at Melbourne and effectively retaining the Ashes for Australia. Warne's statistics were not as spectacular, but he provided an extra, psychological, dimension. There were moments in the early part of the Ashes series when, if he had said he had devised a way of making the ball explode in mid-air, the England batsmen would have worried about their technique for avoiding the fragments.

The cricketing battle changes subtly all the time. As I write, in an English midwinter, both men have fallen a little from the topmost pinnacle. Both will have times when playing cricket will seem infinitely harder than it did for much of 1994. None the less, everyone who has seen them play has been brushed by greatness. Before we go on to nag at the game's problems, we should pause, rejoice and give thanks.

Time for a World Championship

The most immediate problem facing the game is little discussed: England remains the home of cricketing self-analysis, and the greatest triumph of English cricket (amidst its manifest failures) has been to maintain and enhance the status of Test cricket as the game's apogee. Full-length, i.e. five-match, Test series are extinct where neither England nor Australia are involved. And even West Indies v Australia this year is down to four matches.

One-day internationals, in a bewildering variety of competitions with no legitimacy beyond the profit motive, continue to attract vast crowds from Ahmedabad to Wellington. In Test cricket the picture is very patchy indeed: suddenly encouraging in South Africa after a slow start on their return; in India, often better in the smaller and less blasé cities; variable in the West Indies, except when boosted by English mass tourism; excellent in Australia at the moment but, one suspects, heavily dependent on the team's success; dismal in Pakistan, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.

It is hard to explain why a Test match between two mighty sides, Pakistan and Australia, should attract crowds barely touching four figures in Lahore, not a city famous for its range of competing leisure attractions. Tickets are often too expensive; it is cheaper and easier to watch one day rather than five; live TV coverage may be a hindrance.

But Test cricket, crucially, depends on context. It needs a five-Test series (six is too long) for the personalities to emerge and the battle to capture the public imagination. These half-hearted one-off Tests rarely work.

There is a possible solution which would cost next to nothing, could bring in major sponsorship, and would give shape to the present mish-mash of world cricket, raise the game's profile and give it something it badly needs: a true world champion team to go alongside the one-day world champions, who are after all the winners of just one tournament.

All the Test countries need do is undertake to play at least one Test home and away against all the others in a four-year cycle, which they are edging towards anyway. (In this context, it is worth saying that England's decision to play six Tests against West Indies in 1995 instead of inviting Zimbabwe is a rather churlish and unworthy exception.)

In an Ashes series, the World Championship would merely be a subplot and the whole series could count in the final table: two points, say, for the winner; one each if it were drawn. For countries which just played a single Test against each other, then the one game would count for everything. It would thus add particular pith to the matches that now seem least important. There is no reason why this Championship could not be instituted almost at once. It can do no harm and could be very good for the game.

A year of Illingworth

Overall, it is possible to get far too hung up on the tortured logic which suggests that, because Australia beat England, the way to reverse this must be to copy everything Australia does. Australia has only six state teams: quick! get rid of a dozen counties. Australia has a Cricket Academy: gotta-getta-Cricket-Academy. Actually, there has been an Academy of sorts in England for ages, the Lord's groundstaff. But the MCC Young Cricketers now generally provide a second chance for players who have not been signed by a county.

A new structure would be useful only if it were very carefully designed to fit in with what the counties do well (scooping up talent) and what they do badly (making the most of it). To be truthful, the most important asset Australia has over England is its climate, which could be matched only by towing Great Britain a thousand miles nearer the Equator, a proceeding likely to be ruled out on grounds of practicality and cost.

Amidst all this, it is very easy to ignore what is in front of our noses. In 1994-95 Australia had a better cricket team than England. But the gap between the players' inherent abilities was nowhere near as great as some of the performances suggested.

Whereas Australia appeared to approach Test cricket open to the best and most up-to-date methods in everything from technical analysis and fitness training to media relations, much of England's thinking proceeded on the basis that what was good enough for our forefathers was good enough now. England, even more than the counties, continue to fail hopelessly to make the most of their human resources.

In March 1994, the counties, as constituents of the TCCB, did try and do something about this. Faced with two contending former England captains as candidates to succeed Ted Dexter as chairman of selectors, they made the surprisingly imaginative decision of choosing Ray Illingworth instead of the safer figure of M.J.K. Smith.

Illingworth at once announced that, though he would be heading a committee of five, he would be taking full control of England's affairs, diminishing the role of both the team manager, Keith Fletcher, and the captain, Mike Atherton.

An extraordinary 12 months followed. Illingworth's approach was very different from the po-faced taciturnity that has long been the norm in English cricket. He spoke from the start as though he possessed the answers. Indeed, he spoke non-stop, making individual judgments and criticisms even while players were in the midst of preparing for or playing Test matches in both the West Indies and Australia.

Modern warfare is usually accompanied by the sound of armchair generals chuntering over the airwaves about the correct way to invade Kuwait City or Port Stanley; it is not a role normally played by the serving commander-in-chief.

Illingworth abandoned Dexter's elaborate system of observers, making it clear that he would be relying on his observations and intuition. When he did not get his way in the re-styled committee (containing Brian Bolus and Fred Titmus as well as Fletcher and Atherton) he made that clear too. But there was no evidence that his judgments were any less fallible than anyone else's.

His assessments of cricketing character were often awry, hence his preference for Martin McCague ahead of Angus Fraser in the initial selection for the Australian tour; he appeared not even to understand the extent to which Australian wickets have slowed up over the past 20 years. Everyone respects Illingworth's feel for the game; but he sometimes seemed to forget that one of the beauties of this most complex pastime is that no one ever has a monopoly of cricketing wisdom. One began to feel that the right adjective was the one that never attached to him in his playing days: amateurish.

Illingworth then went out to Australia for two Tests on the traditional TCCB-funded trip, which past chairmen of selectors used rather like state visits. He arrived with England already 1-0 down and was greeted by some sections of the travelling press as a saviour, which from their point of view he was, since his comments could fill columns of newsprint.

In contrast, the tour manager - the same M.J.K. Smith whose approach had been implicitly rejected by the counties in their vote - who was nominally in control, refused to play a part in the explanations of England's performances. The Duke of Norfolk, as manager in 1962-63, was infinitely less remote.

There were edges to this farce that were very serious indeed: England were beaten so badly in Melbourne that one sensed the Australians starting to regard the whole country, not just its cricketers, as a laughing-stock. No one knew who was in charge.

The tensions were obvious, overwhelming and, as I write, unresolved, with the captain and one selector, Titmus, firing messages to each other in print about a policy of concentrating on young players, which Atherton wanted but Titmus did not. The situation increased Fletcher's tendency to fatalistic pessimism at a time when England needed an optimist. The tour was organised in a shambolic way, and it must never happen again.

If power is to lie with the chairman of selectors rather than the team manager, then he has to give the job the dedication and commitment he is entitled to expect from his players. He should be the tour manager, taking full responsibility, backed up by keen young coaches and an administrator to cope with the logistics and day-to-day public relations. It is not necessary to be a former England captain to get baggage off carousels.

Who benefits?

One of the nastier shocks of growing up is discovering that not every professional sportsman cares quite as deeply about winning every match as a young supporter might. It is not a problem unique to county cricket, but the set-up actively encourages lack of ambition. In that sense, the proponents of two divisions have identified a genuine problem.

Benefits date back to days when professionals were low-caste journeymen who needed a helping hand to prevent them ending up in the workhouse. They continue because cricket enthusiasts regard them as a worthy form of charity, and because the taxman looks on kindly. A good benefit can double a player's career income.

On the one hand, waiting for this opportunity promotes loyalty to a club, though of a rather selfish and calculating kind. On the other, it creates a culture of time-serving and mediocrity.

Followers of county cricket, perhaps because they prefer the humbler virtues, like to reward the players they have come to know, never mind that they might have done only just enough each year to cling on to their contract. Excellence often makes the British uncomfortable.

County captains, mindful of the way things work, are reluctant to dump old sweats in favour of someone unproven but threatening. It will take a long time to end the benefit system: to harness spectators' generosity more productively, to pay players more but to shift the emphasis towards success rather than muddling through. Following the new TV deal, which will bring in £60 million over the next four years, English cricket has money enough to begin the process. It is time to do so.

A whole new Board game

In the next year or so the various administrative bodies that have ruled English cricket for the past 27 years are to be merged into something that will probably be called the English Cricket Board. For most people, the main effect may be that they will learn to stop saying, "Look what those fools at the TCCB have done now," and say instead, "Look what those fools at the ECB have done now."

The danger with these reorganisations is always that more people are hired to push the same amount of paper round and everyone involved gets a handsome pay rise and a better car.

However, since the new Board will control cricket at all levels, it will be in a position to try to bring about the urgent changes that are needed below first-class level. There is a huge amount to be done; in this volume the tattered state of things is revealed even in a section as gentle as League Cricket in England and Wales, which tells of the way overseas players, especially itinerant Australians, manage to dominate the game in the innermost recesses of the country.

Nominally, cricket already has not one but two Second Divisions - but the Minor Counties Championship, now that Durham have departed, is contested by clubs with minimal ambition for themselves (imagine a football club that did not want to be promoted) and is increasingly dominated by ex-first-class players on the way down; there are hardly any potential first-class players on the way up. It might profitably be merged with the Second Eleven Championship, with the first-class teams using nearby counties as farm clubs, as happens in American baseball.

There is a need for more elite leagues, as Micky Stewart has been saying, especially round the major population centres, getting away from limited-overs games and the 2.30-start-if-everyone-turns-up-on-time mentality. There is a need to recognise that there are not two universities in England but 80, containing a very large percentage of the country's 18 to 22-year-olds, and in many of these institutions cricket is close to collapse because of the contraction of the summer term and a shortage of funds.

The disaster that has overtaken cricket in the state schools has long been recognised, but hardly addressed. Many thousand boys attend sixth-form colleges; but in these schools, funding exists only for specific vocational qualifications, which makes cricket a very low priority indeed, unless pupils are doing Physical Education A-Level. The concerned rhetoric of the Prime Minister is very different from his government's policy.

It would also help if the new organisation were less instinctively secretive than the old one. The Board will have a massive constituency of county members and players, which could make it even harder to control democratically than the TCCB. But is there any reason why it should not publish its accounts?

Above all, it is going to need strong leadership. In 1990 the counties replaced Raman Subba Row with Frank Chamberlain as chairman, a clear decision not to have an activist in charge. It is time to change again. The game does not need dictatorship; it does need direction.

Unfamiliar action, familiar reaction

Possibly the most bizarre cricketing moment in 1994 was the conversation that took place between Ossie Wheatley, then the chairman of the TCCB cricket committee, and a former Test bowler whose anonymity we will preserve. Wheatley was giving details of his conversations with an Indian rocket scientist working for NASA who had explained to him the aerodynamic principles behind reverse swing. "Horsefeathers" (or something like that), said the Test player. "There's no such thing as reverse swing. It's a complete con."

This was just a postscript to the affair that for a week convulsed English cricket: when Mike Atherton appeared to perform what was officially called, with splendid coyness, "unfamilar action on the ball" as Darren Gough was trying to induce reverse swing. The details of the Saturday of the Lord's Test against South Africa are reported elsewhere in Wisden. Several months on, the TV pictures remain puzzling, Atherton's evasiveness remains discreditable.

What is hard to re-create is the febrile atmosphere of the time in which every saloon bar in the land was unanimous that Atherton was cheating, while those best-placed to know how to fiddle with a cricket ball were least convinced - or did not even believe reverse swing existed.

We shall never know the truth unless and until Atherton publishes his memoirs with a chapter headed "Bang to Rights: Of course I did it." But perhaps even Atherton did not know quite what he was doing and why: the human mind is complex and captaining England is a very stressful job.

But, according to old team-mates, Atherton bowled with dust in his pockets in his leg-spinning days when he was definitely not trying to reverse swing it. Traditional British justice and common sense suggest that we should not destroy the career of any sportsman unless the evidence of his malfeasance is absolutely clear-cut - and, before anyone says anything, this is not out of line with what Wisden said about the Pakistani bowlers in similar circumstances two years ago.

However, the modern British way is to damn people first and ask questions later; it is an attitude of mind promoted by our newspapers and it is having an insidious effect on national life. The American Ring Lardner wrote a short story called The Champ, about a boxer who got away with every kind of evil because he was the champ; had Lardner been British he would have written the story the other way round.

Atherton was the right choice to captain England. Nothing has happened to change that. He has made mistakes but has a sense of what needs to be done, and deserves the chance to bring that to fruition. That should not be tossed away lightly, by him or the rest of us.

In Fantasyland

Maybe, in the end, 1994 will be remembered as the year when Fantasy Cricket took a grip of the land. Four of Britain's national newspapers ran competitions in which readers were invited to compile their own elevens made up of any of the players in the County Championship; the runs and wickets they got in the Championship then counted in the competition.

The best-organised of these was in the Daily Telegraph, which attracted 132,537 entrants, who all had to pay 75p each. The sole prize was a trip to Australia, costing, say, a thousand pounds or two. It is not necessary to be Einstein to work out that this constitutes a rather less favourable form of gambling than a bent fruit machine or the three-card trick.

But it was an awfully good game, infinitely better than the footballing equivalent, because cricket's individual and statistical nature is perfect for the purpose. It began to take over cricket conversation: "Poor old Bloggins of Loamshire has just fallen downstairs and broken every bone in his body." "Damn, he's in my fantasy team." The editor of Wisden came 36,952nd. As I was saying, no one has a monopoly of cricketing wisdom.

Ah, Nostalsgia!

After the rained-out one-day international between England and New Zealand in May, a woman from Chelmsford wrote to the Daily Express to congratulate the BBC for showing an old match from 1979 instead. It was a joy to watch cricket of yesteryear when the crowds were happy and there was no abuse or rowdiness.

Ah, yes: 1979, the Golden Age of the game - the Packer schism, sledging, Lillee's aluminium bat, bouncer wars. ... No abuse or rowdiness, indeed! We live in the age of Lara and Warne. A love of cricket goes together with an appreciation of the past. But, for heaven's sake, don't overdo it.

© John Wisden & Co