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Winter sabbatical

The England touring party announced for the Test series against Pakistan in UAE generated little controversy. Selections worth a mention were: retention of the county championship’s top wicket-taking spinner, Panesar; the decision not to promote any of England’s next generation, fearless batsmen – either they are still too vulnerable, or the older models adequately robust (Bopara?); and Steve Davies back as second keeper.

The first Test starts on 17 January – two months and three weeks since England last played international cricket. It feels like the break has been longer; an impression, I think, that comes from the unrelenting schedule that the team has had over the last two years. I’m content to consume the England matches pretty much whenever they come along, but I do recognise there could be benefit to both the freshness of the players and the sharpness of my appetite if larger gaps were re-established between series.

I did experience a personal first on 26 May 2011. I completed a day of work, without recognising, let alone pondering, or checking on the score of, a test involving England. It could have been evidence of a jaded interest, but it felt more like middle-age eroding my ability to maintain an active interest in multiple subjects. That, or I was caught out by a Test beginning on a Thursday.

Twenty-three years have passed since the England cricket team last had a winter sabbatical. No international cricket was played by our team from September 1988 to May 1989 – eight months. The hiatus was the result of the biggest smudge on the international fixture list of the late twentieth century: South Africa. India were to be the hosts of the England team that winter. But the hosts would not grant visas to eight of the England party who had toured South Africa as ‘rebels’:  Gooch, Emburey, Bailey, Barnett, Dilley, Lamb, Newport and Robinson. The first, Gooch, was appointed captain at the end of the 0-4 defeat to the West Indies. His South African connections had already strained relations with India when it hosted the 1987 World Cup.

Peter May, Chairman of Selectors, was asked if India’s possible reaction was considered when the tour party was selected. Cricketing merit alone was considered, he explained, which drew the following, surprising to me, reaction from Graeme Wright in Wisden

is it not naïve of the chairman and his selectors, at the end of the 1980s, to think it unnecessary to look beyond the cricketing point of view?

Wisden 1989, Editor’s notes

The tour was cancelled in October, with the players receiving a proportion of their tour fee. New Zealand appeared able to act as substitute hosts, but wanted a triangular ODI tournament involving Pakistan, their scheduled visitors. Pakistan turned this down (despite, as Wisden’s Editor notes, playing at that time against Alderman and other Aussie rebel tourists to South Africa) and the offer fell through.

Prior to that winter, England had gone without international cricket in the winter of 1975/76 and before that in 1971/72 . The earlier southern hemisphere summer featured just one Test series: West Indies v New Zealand – played in the northern hemisphere. South Africa’s exclusion from the international game was the cause on both occasions.

England had eight months to prepare for the Ashes series in 1989 – admittedly without the benefit of central contracts to control the activities of the players. Those expecting to play a part in the matches against Australia had an abundance of time to address technical flaws, build fitness and otherwise hone their game. This would be a rare opportunity as Mike Atherton, who made his debut that summer, was to find. He netted weekly through the autumn of 1989 under Boycott’s tuition:

it was probably the only time in the whole of my career when I was able to work on technical aspects of my game for a lengthy period. After that winter, I played non-stop for England until my retirement. It is one of the problems of continuous cricket – there is little opportunity to right the faults that, almost unknowingly, creep into your game.

Opening Up, Mike Atherton

I don’t know whether Botham, Gooch, Gower, Lamb, De Freitas, Emburey and the other England probables used the winter of 1988/89 constructively. Nor do I know if Dexter, Stewart and Gower invested time in analysing and plotting a path to defeat the Australians. But the series of 1989 turned out to be one of the most chaotic in England test history. Trounced 4-0, using 29 players – an average of 3.6 changes per test in search of fitness and form – with only Gower and Russell playing the full series. The England bowlers barely averaged 10 wickets per Test.

The autumn net sessions Atherton mentioned were primarily for the benefit of Graham Gooch, who was piecing back together his technique after a summer of torment at the hands of Terry Alderman. Across tests and ODIs, Alderman had dismissed him six times. In my mind, all six involved Alderman releasing the ball from in front of the umpire’s eyes; the ball staying on the line of the off-stump or gently seaming in to the very centre of Gooch’s wide front pad as he pushed forward, round white helmet tipping towards cover point. In fact, he fell only three times this way.

The sabbatical of 1988/89 seemed to have done England no good at all. Any freshness came in the form of undercooked debutants. No strategy was in place to deal with Alderman’s bowling or the Aussie’s top order. England seemed to have had a rare opportunity to prepare a professional, focused campaign. Instead, they reverted to the amateur practices of selection and planning that Duncan Fletcher had to overhaul. The England of 2011/12 will have used the twelve weeks between the final ODI in India this October and the first test in Dubai far more productively.

And what about the effect of the cricket-less winter on my appetite for the game? I struggle to remember. I was in the final year of my degree. Maybe I benefited from fewer interruptions to my sleep during the winter. I would be interested to know how you remember coping with the winter sabbatical and the summer that followed.

Picca and other surprise quick tour picks

Graham Dilley’s death this week has drawn reminiscences of the part he played, batting with Botham, in the Headingley 81 victory and his high-step, drag and sling bowling action.

My obsession with cricket was relatively fresh when Picca broke into international cricket. And the manner of his breaking into the team excited me and so still defines him for me. He was picked for the 1979/80 tour of Australia and India as a twenty-year old, with just one full season of first-class experience. He was supposed to be fast and I conjured with the idea of how good he could be and might become if he was deemed ready to play Australia after so little grown-up cricket. The notion of an England bowler with ‘raw pace’ was thrilling.

Dilley stands, in the time of my cricket consciousness, at the head of a line of bold or optimistic tour selections of inexperienced but possibly destructive England fast bowlers. The inspiration, the whisper in the selection committee’s ear, is from an earlier generation. Frank Tyson, taken to Australia in 1954/55 with Fred Trueman left at home, had been a first-class cricketer for the same length of time as Dilley before his selection. Tyson was the decisive factor in the Ashes campaign, taking 28 wickets at 20, decking and bruising as many Australians as he dismissed. Tyson, though, wasn’t a pure example of the ‘surprise quick tour pick’, as he had made his Test debut in the final test of the English summer against Pakistan. His career, however, followed a pattern of injury and frustrated come-back, emulated if not surpassed by most of the later sqtp’s.

Twenty-five years after Tyson’s Ashes, Graham Dilley was selected. In the next twenty years, England made six more surprise quick tour picks. Why the increasing willingness to gamble on untested pace bowlers?

The West Indies provide the answer. Their quick bowling made them the most successful international team through the late 70s, 80s and into the 90s. England needed pace to compete. Touring with large parties (16 players) gave them the opportunity to have a flyer on a relative unknown. Series in Australia and West Indies, where wickets were traditionally, if not in actual fact, quick provided further motivation.

The six that followed:

Norman Cowans: selected for the 1982/83 Ashes tour, aged 21 and with 43 first class wickets in the locker. Cowans shone in the three run victory at Melbourne, taking 6-77 as Border narrowly failed to guide the Australia tail to their target. His test career, never a regular, was over in less than four years.

Greg Thomas: six years, a stress fracture of his back and 30 wickets for Glamorgan in 1985 made a questionable case for his inclusion in the team to tour West Indies in 1985/86. Wisden recorded that he had it in him to be England’s spearhead, but he only played five tests and suffered more injuries.

Phil DeFreitas: at 20, DeFreitas was a part of the ‘unit’ that undid Australia in the 1986/87 Ashes. The selectors’ gamble with a young player paid off, although his career didn’t develop as this debut series promised that it might.

Ricardo Ellcock: eight years and 40 matches after his first-class debut, Ellcock was chosen to tour the West Indies in 1989/90. He never made the tour, as he was diagnosed with a stress fracture of the back, and barely played cricket again.

Ashley Cowan: his selection for the 1997/98 tour of West Indies, sits at the intersection of two of the England tour selectors’ favoured routes: sqtp and response to a stand-out performance in the Gillette/NatWest Cup Final. Cowan took one wicket on tour, without appearing in an international. He never reappeared for England and struggled with injury for much of a ten year career.

Alex Tudor: chosen for the 1998/99 Ashes Tour ahead of Andy Caddick, Tudor had experienced bowlers ahead of him and bowled well when his chance came at Perth. His England highlight came the next summer – batting as nightwatchman, making 99* against New Zealand – before injuries and poor form kept him out of England contention.

Young bowlers, without solid county careers behind them, continue to break into the England team on tour and at home. Finn, Shazad, Bresnan in recent years. Dernbach and Meaker may follow. These promotions, in keeping with England’s thoroughness, are more calculated and certainly at this time of plenty, feel much less speculative, or even desperate, than the decisions that brought Dilley and his followers to the fore.