The End of the Road for England

In a low-key press conference at Lord's this morning, attended only by a few ECB employees with little else to do, some bloggers trying to make up for the absence of the regular press pack in the Indian sub-continent and a man who'd only come to service the air conditioning, Hugh Morris, the Managing Director of England Cricket, made the momentous announcement that the England team is going to retire from all one-day international cricket.

'There has been general agreement that this winter's tough schedule has put a huge amount of strain on our players, and this was reflected in our poor showing at the World Cup. As there's no chance of the amount of international cricket ever being reduced, we have decided that the team should retire from one-day cricket so that it can concentrate on the five-day game.'

'In making this announcement now we are showing what a caring and sympathetic employer we are. We have protected our over-worked players from another major source of stress. It won't be necessary for Paul Collingwood or Andrew Strauss to agonize about whether or not they should play on as we've helpfully taken the decision for them. The same goes for the younger lads, although some of them - sorry, Luke - would never have been seen again in blue pyjamas anyway'.

'We've had a forty year career in the one-day game and it's high time we cut down on our commitments so that we can prolong our Test career a bit. Without this we would probably have given up on Test cricket sooner rather than later, but this should enable us to retain the Ashes on another couple of occasions before retiring from the game completely and taking up a position in the Sky Sports commentary box'.


Borrowed Time, Glorious Memories

These days one-day internationals are played anywhere and everywhere, throughout the globe, on an almost daily basis. Few mean much. But when two teams with the historic baggage of Australia and India clash, as they did before a cacophonous Motera crowd on Thursday, things happen which you can't help getting excited about and reflecting upon later.

For all India's ultimate success - and any innings in which the sainted Yuvraj plays a pivotal role is music to this Englishman's ears - it was again Ricky Ponting who held the attention in the way he so often has during the period in which his team's decline has moved from the marginal to the terminal.

For too long now Ponting has been living on borrowed time and glorious memories. As his team were crushed by England he came across as a man who hadn't quite grasped the fact that his powers were waning, but now things seem crucially different. For all that he could never say it you get the distinct feeling that he knows that the final curtain may be about to fall. In press conferences the familiar furrowed brow has often been replaced by a relaxed grin, and in the middle extra care is taken in the knowledge that it's all just a little harder than it used to be and there will not be many more opportunities to do what he does best.

When you're only 36 - still, as someone living in a developed country in the twenty-first century, a young man - this realisation must be hard to take. Especially when Sachin, more than eighteen months older, still appears to embody the iron invulnerability of the great player.

Ponting has always shown the maker's name early on but on Thursday this seemed clearer than ever. Play straight, accumulate, try to take sting out of the opposition and their myriad support, and cash in later.

Ultimately the Australian total wasn't good enough to prevent another brick falling from what once seemed an impregnable wall. For them a new era of austerity has long been under way, and it remains to be seen what part Ponting will play in it.

Once again, though, Ponting, at Ahmedabad on 24th March 2011, proved that the greats make their own rules


Grace and Pace

Thirty years ago today, on 14th March 1981, at the Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, Barbados, the over of all fast bowling overs was bowled by Michael Holding to Geoff Boycott.

England, one down in the series after a heavy defeat in Trinidad and a cancelled game in Guyana, had bowled West Indies out for 265. There seemed to be hope. Within a few overs, though, their first innings was in ruins and another heavy defeat lay ahead.

I remember it well. A cool, grey Saturday afternoon in London, the customary crackly TMS transmission and Tony Cozier going noisily mad as first Boycott and then Mike Gatting were swiftly dismissed to leave England rocking.

With the passage of time and Holding safely ensconced behind a Sky microphone you don't hear so much about it these days, but in the years afterwards that over attained the status of legend. There were no highlights on TV apart from a minute or two on the news each evening, and I hadn't managed to convince my parents to buy a video recorder. I was out that night and so didn't actually see it until years later.

In an age in which raw speed of the type Holding purveyed is increasingly rare, watching the man who combined grace and pace in the most complete way possible is like a window on another world. What really stands out is the smoothness and rhythm of Holding's approach to the wicket. As I said about David Gower a while ago, there's simply nobody like him around now.

Boycott, whose stumps were shattered by the final ball of the over, was, for once, almost lost for words. But less is sometimes more, and, as he said in In The Fast Lane:

'It was a bit rapid, to say the least'.


Fading Motivation

With time fading for England in the World Cup in a familiar manner, it's impossible to be certain about what's behind their rank inconsistency. However, as it can't be attributed to lack of technical ability, or, these days, to one-day international inexperience, I fall firmly within the camp which - as Simon Hughes exemplified in the Telegraph last week - puts the variable nature of their form down to the brutal and unforgiving nature of their recent itinerary.

You will never get any of them to admit it in public, but, for those players involved, the summit of their winter's achievements - in some cases of their entire careers - came in Sydney on 7th January. Perhaps uniquely now, Test cricket, especially against Australia, means more to the average English player (and follower), than a one-day international competition ever will, even if it's the World Cup. And if you've only spent a handful of days at home since the autumn, the type of iron motivation you need when the likes of Ireland and Bangladesh come gunning for you is going to be even harder to summon.

However, as both the Indian and South African games showed, even a weary and reduced team can produce the goods when it's really threatened, so, with one qualifying game to go, salvation and a passage to the quarters is well within their grasp.

Unlike Ireland, though, they might want to think about how they bowl to Kieron Pollard...

An Englishman in Nagpur

The shocking form of Jimmy Anderson and the more prolonged decline of Kevin Pietersen may be symptomatic of their reduced levels of desire, although it seems certain, at least in Pietersen's case, that there's something more complex going on. This is something to be examined at greater length another day.

One Englishman at the World Cup who certainly won't be struggling for motivation is Ian Gould. After a long career in the English county game, Gould failed to make an impression as a coach and said a while back that becoming a first-class umpire was the best thing he'd ever done. He's a sharp, proficient official with a businesslike but avuncular manner that seems to create a good rapport with all the players he comes into contact with.

Yesterday he was standing at square leg as Sachin Tendulkar sent one of the most sublime straight drives that even he has surely ever hit back past Morne Morkel to move from 14 to 18.

Even from the viewpoint of a gorgeous Spring morning in England, it would have been a privilege just to be at Nagpur. To be on the field and play a part, when your playing days are far behind you, must be just about as good as it gets.


Happy Birthday

Andrew Strauss was 34 years old yesterday. I hope he lives to celebrate many more birthdays. One drawback: For the rest of his days, once a year on March 2nd, he'll think of Bangalore and a big Irish bloke with funny hair hitting his team all over the place.

Happy birthday, mate.

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