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A new beginning for England?

19 May 2010.

Collingwood’s side were fearless and kept pressing till victory was theirs. Here’s hoping it marks a renaissance in the country’s cricket.

England deserved their triumph in the Caribbean. The two best teams met in the final and the most resourceful side prevailed. Paul Collingwood’s outfit gathered momentum as the tournament went along and met every challenge with mounting confidence. Australia emerged as a side determined to play their brand of cricket but unduly dependent on winning the new-ball battles. They were outplayed for the vast majority of the 40 overs in their semi-final. Accordingly there is no reason whatsoever to cavil at England’s achievement.

Paul Collingwood

Ashes 2009 Cardiff Day 1 – Paul Collingwood
Photo ©: John Richards /

Thanks not least to these finalists, and groundsmen able to provide firm pitches, the tournament produced a lot of attractive cricket. Indeed, it was the most compelling one-day competition of the decade, with the splendid first edition of the Champions League as its only rival. Happily the tournament galloped along and exposed mediocrities and impostors. Illumination and confirmation were its daily deliverance.

Not a single second-rate over was bowled in the final, and precious few in the entire competition. Even Luke Wright can be considered a serious practitioner, albeit one intermittently employed. Otherwise the bowling was put in the hands of specialists and proven allrounders. Pakistan played four tweakers and came within a whisker of victory. Australia fielded its three fastest bowlers, a tyro legspinner and its main handyman. England probed cannily. Fears that Twenty20 might favour front-foot blasters and punish spinners were confounded. Quite the opposite occurred.

Although beaten, the Australians helped ensure that batsmen were properly tested. The Indians, especially, were found wanting. Plainly the education of the new generation of batsmen is incomplete. Whether or not these performers have a taste for learning remains to be seen. These saplings might consider studying the techniques and lifestyles of the giant oaks close at hand.

If the Australian bowling was satisfying in its rawness, the English version was impressive in its inventiveness. Afterwards Paul Collingwood praised his bowlers for responding to conditions. Certainly they were not slaves to custom, relying instead on swing and pace at the right time, and resorting to cutters and so forth on slower pitches. England did not give much away, and the fielding was alert. Accordingly they were able to pressure opponents into error, not least the taking of the sort of harum scarum single that cost David Warner his wicket and Australia their best chance of taking the trophy.

England’s batting was also audacious and varied, with a balance of power and invention, left and right, and an ability to gamble intelligently, as opposed to desperately. Captain and coach deserve credit for creating the atmosphere required to encourage constructive thinking.

Both finalists had strength in depth, and so an ability to renew a faltering attack. Contrastingly West Indies and Sri Lanka relied on a couple of match turners. Pakistan depended on the Akmals, whilst the New Zealanders and South Africans never quite found their rhythm. Twenty20 is an unforgiving game.

Thankfully the batting was as pleasing as the bowling. By and large the strokeplay was clean, controlled and commanding. Throughout, spectators were reminded of the importance of cricket’s newest and most telling shot, the lofted straight drive played with open hips, an abandoned front leg and whiplash arms. Naturally the scoop and reverse sweep attract more attention – Michael Hussey’s sweep off Mohammed Aamer in the second-last over of the tumultuous semi-final was astonishing – but the straight hit off the front foot with back-foot technique is more reliable and damaging. Not even Eoin Morgan’s intrepid activities were as dangerous. No wonder young batsmen practise this shot in the nets. It is critical to their futures and fortune. It has rendered the yorker and slower ball less effective

For all the innovation, though, the batting was often top class. A particular delight lies in watching a proficient operator blessed with an abundance of strokes stretch himself the better to impose himself on an equally determined attack. True mastery does not easily admit to limitations. Nor is belligerence always, or even often, the only way forward. By no means have the swashbucklers had it all their own way in Twenty20.

All things considered, Mahela Jayawardene’s batting was the highlight of the tournament. As with Jacques Kallis, it took him a while to come to terms with the format. Previously, anxiety had been his downfall. Now his work was a pleasure to watch as he eased the ball around or else deftly flicked it into an unpatrolled area.

Inevitably, though, the composition of the teams in the final provoked debate. The sight of two batsmen born and raised in South Africa and an Irishman holding the fort for England gave pause for thought. Contrastingly the narrow but distinctive nature of the Australian line-up was ignored. It is not legitimate to ignore the issue. Over the years I have failed to provide a clear exposition of my viewpoint.

As far as Australian cricket is concerned, the inability to involve a wider range of players is frustrating. Daniel Christian’s inclusion in the squad was a boon. He is an aborigine whose few predecessors were mostly driven out of the game due to supposedly suspect actions – and never mind that one of them put his arm in a splint in one club game and continued delivering thunderbolts. Christian is an impressive young man devoted to his country, community and cricket.

Alas, the large subcontinental groupings were not represented. Usman Khawaja, a popular young man and a splendid batsman, might well have been taken to New Zealand on the recent Test tour had not injury intervened.

The causes of the Australian narrowness are not easily pinned down. Some blame the direct approach that has long been the local way, an attitude enjoyed by those raised within its confines but liable to be taken personally by the unfamiliar. Others point directly towards lingering strains in an increasingly multi-racial society. Others still suggest that the first priority of new Australians is to establish themselves, so that the focus is on study and career. Whatever the reason, Australian cricket remains stubbornly narrow. For now Cricket Australia can only envy the diversity detected elsewhere.

Contrastingly England is a mixed bag. Its ability to absorb all sorts of players from all sorts of backgrounds is admirable. Always I’ve fought in that corner. But there is another aspect to be considered. To no small degree English cricket has been saved by the influx of South African players, including Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott, Craig Kieswetter, Michael Lumb, as well as Andrew Strauss and Matt Prior, cricketers from that heritage.

That these players are as committed as anyone else to the cause is not the point. Why did they succeed? English cricket spends umpteen millions of pounds and employs numerous coaches and still the side relies mostly on sons of cricketers, and players from other cultures and from the remote North-east.

It is a state of affairs long predicted hereabouts. The contention is that English cricket has lost the hard edge brought to it by the aristocrats, miners and wide boys of yesteryear (Douglas Jardine, Harold Larwood and Ken Barrington are my cricketing heroes). Perhaps only those fortunate enough to sample both can appreciate the gulf between, say, Maritzburg College and any Australian club, and their equivalents in England. Exposure tends to provoke a response saying “How on earth are we supposed to compete with this lot?”

The rise of Kieswetter, Lumb, Trott and Pietersen is not a surprise because they were raised in a demanding culture. England has been strengthened by the disruptions in South Africa as that country sets about the daunting task of carrying out an economic, political and sporting revolution without undue loss of blood or capital.

Hackles may rise, but in suggesting that the culture has become complacent, and that the thought process affects every section of a society, this column offers an answer to an extraordinary but long-ago predicted position. The system is unproductive; success has come in part because harder attitudes have been imported. Even the coach is African, as was Duncan Fletcher. Does anyone seriously suppose the rush of African-born players is a coincidence? Let critics present an alternative interpretation.

All the more reason to salute Collingwood, a man from a working-class background who has made the most of his abilities. Determination can take a man a long way. Of late England has been blessed with good captains.

All the more reason to praise Tim Bresnan and Graeme Swann, players prepared to look any opponent in the eye. All the more reason to praise a well planned and spirited performance from a combative England team. How many of them emerged because of the system, and how many despite it?

England’s response to victory has been sober and sensible. Senior writers have put the victory in its context. It was a Twenty20 tournament. Even so, it was splendid to watch a fearless and well-drilled England side keep pressing till finally the deed was done. It was not the end, but hopefully it was a beginning. Perhaps these fellows can begin a real renaissance in English cricket.

This article was written for ESPN cricinfo.
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