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What is Wrong with the English?

28 June 2008.

At no point in the last 50 years has the country that invented the game stood at the top of the rankings. They have only themselves to blame.

Kevin Pietersen’s nomination as captain of the England side confirms that the game in the land of its origin has come to a pretty pass.

Nothing wrong with the appointment itself. Although he tends to ruffle fluffy English feathers – a custom founded more upon an indiscreet tongue than anything he has actually done – Pietersen knows enough about the game and the requirements of leadership to give a satisfactory account of himself. For several years he enjoyed the informative experience of playing under Shane Warne, as astute on the field as he can be reckless off it. Significantly, Pietersen moved to Hampshire precisely because he wanted to expose himself to the ways of great sporting minds. He wanted to understand and replicate the process. As far as he was concerned the rest was up to him. His choice has been amply justified both in his own career and by the inspiring captaincy the Australian has provided both in the Southern regions of England and in the hotter parts of India.

No, the point is not that England has made a foolish choice. Quite the opposite. Nor does the selection reflect all that badly on the mother country itself, as opposed to its cricketing wing. To the contrary, it indicates an ability to embrace characters of all sorts, including a loud young man blessed with more charisma than charm, who played a handful of games for his school team in Pietermaritzburg before, like a latter-day Tom Thumb, starting to climb his ladder. He kept rising till he ended up among the angels themselves, whereupon he knew that he had reached his destination. South Africans have been waiting for their prodigal son to fall but he has only stumbled.

Kevin Pietersen

Pietersen batting for Surrey against Somerset.
Photo © Harrias [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

That England has promoted the right man, though, ought to provoke introspection among the thousands of locally born and bred patriots working within the game. Actually they should have been scratching their heads for several decades. Considering the amount of money hurled at the game, and the number of coaches and advisors and psychologists and dieticians and schemes unveiled, and the attention England devotes to the game, this inability to produce a candidate from the homegrown ranks is embarrassing. For that matter the team’s failure to subdue a compromised New Zealand team suggests that most of the money has been wasted. But then it has been a long time since England was able to look down on its rivals. At no point in the last 50 years has the country that invented the game and claimed ownership of it for so long stood at the top of the rankings. Instead England has celebrated occasional victories, mistaking them for transforming events. It is a state of mind.

Doubtless bad weather has played a part in this underperformance, but these inescapable truths require an explanation. Or at any rate something more impressive than a lot of lame talk about structures and so forth. It’s not always the system’s fault. Sometimes the people themselves must take the blame. If the thinking is awry, more money and more schemes are a waste of time. They only lead to more false dawns and excuses and then the cycle resumes. England needs to focus not so much on plans and more upon character – most especially upon its development.

They can begin by raising their sights. No more wild celebrations every time the Indians are beaten or the Sri Lankans put in their place. Instead, arrange a party and get back to work. England ought to expect itself to dominate the game, with Australia as its main challenger owing to that country’s singularity of thought and firm pitches. After all it is possible to achieve greatness, a point conclusively proven by their current captain (and though Paul Collingwood, whose place he has taken, lacks greatness, he has surpassed his assumed capabilities thanks to immense determination, an outlook instilled by a factory-working father).

Pietersen is the product of new, opportunistic England and Collingwood belongs to the days when players emerged either from rigorous private schools relied upon to reinforce class in every area, or from the working classes with their desire and hard won skill. At its best, England blended ruthlessness and pragmatism. Only in the aftermath of the two World Wars has England been compromised, and then it was scarcely alone. Nevertheless it could hardly expect to beat the Australians in these periods. Otherwise it has only had itself to blame for its inability to reach the top. And it is getting worse.

Apart from the Australians, none of the other countries has such opportunities to shine. Most have been bogged down by poor governance, internal conflicts, poverty, historical complications and various other handicaps. Sri Lanka has a small population, a weak infrastructure, and civil strife. Pakistan has a feudal system, troubled borders, and a national religion. Zimbabwe’s inefficiencies have been documented, South Africa is trying to build a just society without destroying its inheritance, West Indies does not exist and is therefore vulnerable to numerous forces, New Zealand is a small rugby-playing country with limited resources at its disposal, Bangladeshis have enough on their plate surviving day upon day, and the sleeping tiger of India has only just stirred itself.

England ought to be near the top of the rankings all the time and at the top some of the time. Doubtless the system is faulty but it did produce Len Hutton and Ken Barrington and Fred Trueman, masters one and all. Steps have been taken to improve the domestic game. Doubtless the introduction of two divisions has helped, while the idea of creating regional teams to compete at a level close to Test cricket has much to commend it. But these innovations merely scratch the surface. England’s problems go much deeper, into the heart of the old nation with its tiredness, into the schools with their softness, into the past with its stubbornness, into the present with its lack of conviction.

England’s failure to produce players is proven. Fortunes are paid out to local coaches and still the counties lean heavily on foreigners signed under Kolpak or else as overseas players. Some teams contain more imports than a computer shop. Most of them come from South Africa or Australia. And that begs the question: why do these players score more runs and take more wickets than their local counterparts? They have only two arms and two legs.

Confidence and calibre are factors. These blokes can really play. But how to explain that? It’s not that the game has never been played well in the green and pleasant land.

Unavoidably, the main difference lies between the ears. Patently it is a state of mind, a point Englishmen are extraordinarily loath to accept, especially from an expatriate long since gone native. Attitudes towards the game and life itself make enough of a difference to persuade ambitious counties to hire foreign coaches, soccer teams to seek overseas, or Celtic managers and cricket selectors to give the stripes to imports. At its best, England relied on men from the extremes. East Enders and modern educators are poorly placed to produce players capable of defying Glenn McGrath. In the end it is all about national culture.

Actually England’s production line of players is even less successful than it seems. Amongst the current players, Monty Panesar was raised in Northampton (everyone has to be brought up somewhere) but as a Sikh he has a strong second identity. Kevin Pietersen hails from Kwa-Zulu Natal, Tim Ambrose is an Australian, and therefore a fierce competitor, and Andrew Strauss is another South African whose family moved to England in his early days. For that matter Owais Shah and Ravi Bopara retained close ties with their communities.

It is the formative years that count. Dismayed by local education, particularly scruffiness and disrespect shown towards elders, numerous African settler families send their offspring to boarding schools in Tanzania, Uganda and elsewhere. African sportsmen dominate European soccer and athletics, whereupon people point towards extra ability – a patronising outlook that provides a feeble excuse for local failures.

And it goes further. Not all emerging players who first saw the light of day on English soil and amongst Anglo-Saxons are genuine products of the system. Some of them came from established cricketing families. Ryan Sidebottom’s dad was a red haired medium-pacer of fierce disposition (this may be tautological). Stuart Broad’s progenitor was an upright left-hander often called upon to open the innings for his country. Chris Tremlett’s father could land his seamers on one of the threepenny bits that existed in those days. These fellows learnt a lot about cricket in their living rooms. There is nothing stopping Englishmen rising except their raising.

In short, English cricket is to a disconcerting degree sustained by players reared outside an expensive system. Therefore the system is deeply flawed. Most of those raised within its framework have had strong outside forces. Evidently the status quo does not address the real problem, namely indulgence, and therefore cannot produce enough properly trained players to take on the world. During the last Ashes tour the parents of an England batsman spent an entire flight moaning about how little their son was paid compared to the vastly superior and more deserving Australians. It is a question of outlook.

England has an abundance of resources and ability. Both are wasted. Until this uncomfortable truth is faced, until this weakness is corrected, every surge will peter out. Meanwhile England will be sustained by sons, immigrant communities (amongst whom the black Africans have underperformed) and a core of highly motivated locals eager to give more than they take and brave enough to pursue their gift to its furthest point.

This article was written for ESPN cricinfo.
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