Is this England team great?
If you say to him the words: "Gatting, Gower, Botham", what's the first image that pops into his head? The chances are it has something to do with the Australians, almost certainly in the mid-1980s, probably with champagne and Elton John flowing in the background.
Now try these three for size: "Atherton, Stewart, Thorpe". The Aussies are almost certainly in the picture once again, but this time centre stage, parading the urn for the umpteenth time. Our heroic trio are probably gazing at their navels at the base of the podium, the Tetley Bitter logos on their shirts as prominent as albatrosses around their necks.
Give or take the odd year of overlap, those six players epitomise English cricket in the 1980s and the 1990s respectively, an era of fleeting glory and regular humiliation – usually at the hands of West Indies and Australia, but with sizeable dollops of humble pie courtesy of India, Pakistan and New Zealand as well.
If you take the bare statistics of those decades, the latter was the pick of a bad bunch: England won 20 out of 104 Test matches in the 1980s compared with 26 out of 107 in the 1990s. However, with three Ashes triumphs in the 80s compared to none in the 90s, there's no doubting which ranks higher in the English public's affections. It’s rather like Manchester City in the same era, revelling in rare and glorious triumphs over United with little hope or prospect of real good times rolling again.
With that in mind, what images will swim into view in two decades' time when someone mentions the names "Cook, Pietersen, Bell"? An era of unparalleled Aussie thumping is upon us, with the prospect of a fourth Ashes victory in five rubbers looming large, but this time, with 49 victories in 111 matches since Bell made his debut in 2004, those good times have not been restricted to a single opponent.
There have been trouncings along the way of course – Graeme Smith’s South Africa have won each of their last two series in England while Pakistan’s 3-0 triumph in the UAE two winters ago was a particularly bitter pill to swallow, so soon after attaining the World No.1 ranking. But by and large, English cricket has never had it so good for so long against so many different opponents. Even Len Hutton’s worldbeaters of the 1950s never won a Test series in India.
And yet, pound for pound, there is still an overwhelming affection for England’s heroes of the 1980s and 1990s, in spite of their struggles to string together anything resembling a consistent run of results. It goes beyond sentimentality as well. Players such as Gower and Botham invariably earn more mentions in all-time XI shortlists than, say, Bell and Andrew Strauss. England's raw materials are not necessarily better in this day and age, but their alchemy has come on in leaps and bounds.
Around the turn of the millennium, when the ECB finally introduced the concept of central contracts, the obvious question was asked: how might those more delicate souls from previous generations have benefitted from a system designed to foster a national team ethic? Would Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash, to name but two, have blossomed into Test mega-batsmen in a nice, cosy one-for-all environment?
Surely the more pertinent question would have revolved around those players whose credentials were rarely called into question. What heights might the likes of Atherton, Gower and Gatting have attained with the modern-day support systems in place? Imagine a sylph-like Gatting benefitting from the latest nutritional advice, or a Gower exempted from criticism for languid cover-drives thanks to the greater durability of the men around him.
In the early 2000s, while the central contract system was bedding in, the team psychologist Steve Bull conducted a study into the mental toughness of England's elite cricketers. (Read the study here)
Instructively, the names that featured the most prominently in his findings were also the players who stayed the course the best during those turbulent two decades just gone - and we're not simply talking about the ever-presents such as Atherton and Stewart but also the never-say-die "yo-yo" players such as Jack Russell and Angus Fraser, who retained their elite credentials in spite of long periods of injury and selectorial whimsy.
The study implied that an ability to maintain focus and retain one's innate levels of self-confidence is more important to a Test cricketer than a talent for hitting, delivering or catching a cricket ball. That's self-explanatory you might have thought: as the old chestnut goes, "it's called Test cricket for a reason". And yet, the advent of multi-tiered coaching set-ups appears designed to compensate for that original absence of je ne sais quoi.
Bell, to take one unfair example, has had his early-career flakiness coached out of him to an extent that was never available to Hick and Ramprakash. Credit must go to the player himself for seizing his opportunities, of course, but it would be fascinating to know how he might have fared in a different sporting culture: in the Caribbean for instance, where the pressures and opportunities for talented sportsmen existed in spite of the absence of such a well-structured (and well-funded) set-up.
The two greatest teams of the past 30 years, West Indies and Australia, have both been founded on an unshakeable belief, epitomised by the leadership of Viv Richards and Steve Waugh, neither of whom was ever known to back down from a challenge to their team’s hegemony. But each team was also blessed with players of matchless skill – Malcolm Marshall and Shane Warne were the most prominent examples, but also Adam Gilchrist and Richards himself, men who would have stood tall regardless of the quality around them, much as Andy Flower throughout his playing days with Zimbabwe.
England’s current team has a sprinkling of such star-dust. James Anderson’s returns since the spring of 2008 rightly set him apart from most of his contemporaries, although in an era that is lacking an outstanding crop of fast bowlers to rival the Wasims, Waqars, Donalds, Pollocks, Ambroses, Walshs and McGraths of yesteryear, it is arguably less of a challenge to stand out from the crowd as it once was.
And then there’s Kevin Pietersen who, when fit and focussed, boasts most of the trappings of great batsmanship. However, in the build-up to the Old Trafford Test, amid a gentle fuss about his latest injury niggle, the general consensus was that England would get by just fine without him, thanks very much. When greatness can be taken for granted in a sporting contest, you have to wonder about the overall quality of the product.
The uncomfortable truth is that England are faring just fine without having to dredge up a once-in-a-lifetime genius or rally around a common cause. But so long as they beat the Aussies, all will feel right in their world.
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