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Can Lord Heseltine save the England cricket team?

7 January 2014

12:15 PM

7 January 2014

12:15 PM

Apologies may be in order. A few weeks ago, I was advocating aid for Australia. As we had set the place up, we had a duty when this once-proud daughter house was sliding into decline. We used criminals to get the country going, which worked well. Hard, amoral characters, they built a nation in their own image. That was Australia for two centuries: hard, amoral – and good at cricket.

Then everything seemed to be going wrong. Perhaps it was the southern sun’s fault: melting down toughness and leaving a vacuum for decadence. It was time for the mother country to come to the rescue with fresh supplies of convicts (we have plenty). With their restorative blood-lines, the hardness might return and the Aussies should be capable of playing proper cricket again, in fifty years or so.
Well, my anxieties may have been premature. It has been an astonishing series, worth analysis as well as sackcloth and ashes. The first point is that the Australians’ achievement is all the greater, because they are not a great side. When we won the Ashes in 2005, the Aussies were fielding five players from the post-1918 Australia X1. (Try Hayden, Morris, Bradman, Ponting, Greg Chappell, Miller, Gilchrist, Lindwall, Warne, Lillee and McGrath, with Tiger O’Reilly as twelfth man/alternative to Lindwall.)

Despite five-nil, no-one from the current team forces his way into that line-up. Indeed, there are quite a few journeymen. Rogers, Watson, Bailey, Harris, Siddle, Lyon: none of them is remotely a world-class performer. Yet they gave a world-class performance: one for the annals and the record-books: one to keep the chain-gang cheering. They all played above themselves, as did Mitchell Johnson, who is now world class. But has there ever been a previous instance of a pace-bowler suddenly transforming his reputation when he was already over thirty?

The English side lacked pretenders to genius, unless you consider Pietersen, who is a genius, or a pretender. But Alastair Cook is – or was – in line to be the first Englishman to score 10,000 Test runs and score thirty Test centuries. Bell is as technically accomplished as any recent English batsman. Most of the rest were well-established, massively experienced and good at winning – or they were hugely promising: ie. young Root, now dropped.

Last summer, we beat the Aussies three-nil. Even if that may have been a flattering margin, there was still a good gap.

At the beginning of this series, only Michael Clarke would have featured in a combined X1. During the past five Tests, there has been a swing from 10:1 in England’s favour to – at best – 2:9. On current form, England would only provide Stokes, and possibly Broad.


This transformation helps us to understand cricket. It is a most deceptive game. To a casual observer, it will seem so gentle, so civilised. The players wear whites. There are intervals for lunch and tea. Around the boundary, whiskery old coves with beery suntans and ancient MCC ties are arguing about who opened for IZ against the Old Harrovians in 1955. “Well run, Sir.” It does seem to be the sporting equivalent of George Orwell’s old maids bicycling to Evensong.

For cricket at a higher level, this is wholly deceptive. Serious cricket can claim to be the most ruthless of sports, in that it puts its players under relentless psychological pressure. For a batsman who is out of form, it is a lonely walk to the wicket, and an even lonelier walk back, if yet again, in that most comfortless of euphemisms, he has failed to trouble the scorers. Sledging has been much complained of, and rightly so, but the worst, the most destructive, sledging comes from the voices inside the batsman’s own head. During this series, two English players broke under pressure. Among former cricketers, there is a high suicide rate.

Pressure: that is the key. A Test match is played in two places simultaneously: on the field, and in the mind. This is the real criticism of Alastair Cook, the real worry about his powers of captaincy. He never seemed to trouble the Aussies’ minds. Cricketers often agree that a target of 150 in the fourth innings can be daunting. In the later stages of a match, Melbourne is never a generous wicket, and to win, the Australians had to make 231. That is when a proper captain finds the way to exert pressure. It is hard; he has to set attacking fields and he cannot spare many fours. But somehow, he has got to break through inside the enemy’s heads, so that 150 feels like 450.

Cook failed abjectly. He did not appear to have a clue how to use his main bowlers. Had he lost confidence in them, or had they lost confidence in themselves? In his field placements and bowling changes, he was poodling around; the Wilkins Micawber school of captaincy – something might turn up. In that match, at least, Anderson was economical. He should have been bowling until his boots were full of blood: until his feet fell off. As it was, something did turn up – the Australian scoring rate. Rogers and Watson sauntered home.

English heads were always vulnerable. The Aussies were never dismissed for less than 200; we were, six times. When that happens, you tend to lose five-nil. Is there something wrong in the dressing room? What about Pietersen? When he is on song – the willow warbler, perhaps – it seems effortless. When he is not playing well, there seems to be no effort. Is he like Geoff Boycott: would he too prefer it if cricket were not a team game?

If the problem is morale, there might be a solution: Michael Heseltine. It is December 1985, at one of Jeffrey Archer’s Christmas parties. It is also the height of the Westland affair, when a West Country helicopter firm briefly threatened to bring down Margaret Thatcher. Hezza had been locking horns with her. At Jeffrey’s, Norman Lamont tells me that Michael will resign. ‘Balls.’ ‘You’re wrong. You mark my words. This will end up with him going.’

So I stroll across the room to test the atmosphere. ‘Congratulations, Michael. You have twisted the Prime Ministerial tail as it has never been twisted before. But you can’t win. You’ve got to leave yourself an escape route.’ Hezza’s mane blazed. ‘I shall do no such thing. There is no question of escape routes. I am going to win.’

‘[Expletive deleted] me,’ thought I. ‘Lamont is right. We have the irresistible object meeting the immovable force. When one of them is the PM, she takes the trick.’

The then leading slow bowler in England, Phil Edmonds, had been listening to us. He was impressed – with Michael. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘we are shortly off to the West Indies, and no-one gives us a chance. Everyone thinks we’ll be slaughtered. Will you come and give us a pep-talk?’

‘I will, and I’ll tell you what you must do. You must make defeat a psychological impossibility. You must eat, breath and sleep victory. Victory for breakfast, victory for lunch, victory for dinner. Banish any thought of defeat. That is the way to win.’

So: in the current travails, the planners at Lord’s could do worse than send for Lord Heseltine. But there are a couple of caveats. Michael did lose his battle, and whether or not the pep-talk took place, England were butchered, though by a great side: one of those West Indian teams which was both immovable and irresistible. But that will not apply to this summer’s Sri Lankans and Indians. Whether or not Michael Heseltine has a role, the current crisis of morale cannot and must not be insoluble.

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Show comments
  • Ramesh

    What the England cricket team needs at present in my view
    are as follows:

    England requires a very positive and aggressive
    captain who attacks as the first form of defence, rather than thinks
    defensively to curtail or save runs.

    All the batsmen adopting a wider stance so that
    in quick fast wickets in Australia they are able to get forward and back very
    quickly depending on the line and length of
    a given delivery. This also allows the batsman to play the pull, cut and
    hook stroke as he is lower to the ground with the wider stance in Australia
    where the bounce of the ball is pronounced in comparison with English wickets.

    Play the vertical and horizontal stokes
    regularly without fear as the bounce of the ball is consistent in Australia.

    Take singles on a regular basis to rotate the
    strike to keep the scoreboard moving and frustrate the bowlers.

    Bowl in the corridor of uncertainty and move
    and ball in and out on a full length, just short of a length, not bowl short or
    over pitched deliveries, which have been punished by the Australian batsmen to

    Use the bowling crease wisely and ensure to use
    change of pace and good bouncers on off stump as surprise weapons.

    Do not let the batsman get easy singles and
    accept all the catches, including half chances, which is very vital.

    Ensure to play Ian Bell at number three as he
    is the best batsman in the present England team.

    Bring in Jonny Bairstow as the wicket keeper batsman for the remaining
    two Test Matches.

    for the future of English cricket, change the two bowling coaches and
    strengthen the batting coaching department with a technically oriented coach,
    including changing the head coach if required or needed depending on the

  • Slicer

    Lord Heseltine wants England abolished and broken up into EU regions, so I don’t think he wants to save the England cricket team.

  • paulus

    Probably not, after that display we need Lord Carey and maybe a handful of shamans. Only divine intervention appears to the drift wood of hope we can hang onto: a shambles

  • Epimenides

    Heseltine’s legacy is that, as deputy PM, he aided and abetted Major to the worst electoral defeat in the history of the Conservative Party. His next job was working as an advisor to Blair.
    Need more be said? No wonder former Conservative activists are joining the UKIP.

  • Noa

    “…Whether or not Michael Heseltine has a role, the current crisis of morale cannot and must not be insoluble.”

    Dear Lord! David Cameron’s barber would offer more.

  • Smithersjones2013

    Yeah right Heseltine is a fine example. Such a fine example its a pity he wasn’t deported to Australia for ‘crimes against conservatism’.

    • rtj1211

      You mean he had the temerity to make his own money rather than inherit it??!!

  • GAM

    Harris a ‘journeyman’, really? This is a man who averages 21.56 with the ball, having bowled in 40 innings. I assume that you consider him a ‘journeyman’ on account of the limited number of test matches he’s played. You seem to be unaware that had he not been plagued by injury, Harris would’ve appeared much more regularly. Even without these facts, you only needed to watch him bowl in the last two Ashes series to realise that he’s significantly better than a ‘journeyman’.

    • Makroon

      Let’s see how the Aussies do when they next play a half-decent team who are actually up for it.

  • Fergus Pickering

    I suggest Rob Key, the Kent captain, an outstandingly good egg who has scored a double-century for England. Captaining Kent recently has been an amiable disaster. He drinks and smokes like chimney and lets absolutely nothing ruffle him..

  • CharlietheChump

    Aussies lost the summer Ashes and won the New Year series. England had nothing to do with either.

  • ADW

    Richard Hadlee was a far better bowler after 30, though his transformation had started before then (in his first six years he averaged over 30, in his final 11 under 20 if I recall rightly). He also used to beat teams on his own, effectively. Had he had decent support – as Johnson did this series – other teams would have gone the same way as England this time.

  • kyalami

    Give someone else the captaincy as Cook has shown he can’t bat while he is captain and we most need him as a batsman. Make anyone else the captain: maybe a promising youngster. Tell those players over 30 that they have the next series to perform or they are out.

    Keep Heseltine away: he was incredibly full of himself and frankly nasty.

  • Makroon

    The last three England captains (including Cooke) were outstanding run-makers whose form collapsed when they were appointed captain – blame the idiot selectors.
    If you are looking for a “saviour”, I hear Gordon Brown is at a loose end.

    • HookesLaw

      Has Cookes batting been that bad until this tour?
      We have played badly – this is probably down to playing too much cricket (does it make sense in this day and age to tour over christmas and new year?) and I suspect to certain members of the team not getting on. For various reason the players heads were not in gear. It seems clear that the players were not focussed and at odds with themselves and each other.

      • ADW

        When was the last great series Cook has? Certainly not against Australia at home in 2013 nor NZ before that.

        The Australians play just as much cricket, and got murdered in India before 3-0 in England.

        • HookesLaw

          Most teams struggle in Indian conditions. I think (just a supposition) that for some reason or other England players did not have theior heads on. This is im portant in a ny sport – but particularly so in cricket. In this aspect the management are to blame.

          I still think its daft touring over the new year christmas. But against this its their living and they get a free trip to Australia out of it.

          • ADW

            Indeed they do, but that’s the first time Australia have been hammered by that sort of margin in a while, and they had a very long tour of England too, so I don’t buy the schedule as any reason for England’s failure

            They’ve been touring over Xmas since before the war.

    • Fergus Pickering

      That is not true of Andrew Strauss, I think. But he was a public school man. These comprehensive chaps just can’t hack it.

      • GAM

        Alastair Cook also happen’s to be privately educated (Bedford School).

        • Fergus Pickering

          A detail! He has not the posh voice and commanding manner. You know what I’m talking about.Jardine, Brearley….

          • Makroon

            Ha-ha, Straussy has a “posh” voice ?
            Slightly “estuary” with notes of “Saffer”, I would say.

            • Fergus Pickering

              Sounds posh to me. And to the England team which is what matters. And certainly loud.Info from Matthew Hoggard.

          • Noa

            How can it be a “detail”? It’s the entire basis of your argument!

            And out of curiosity do you know how many of the Australian team had the ‘benefit’ of a public school education?

            • Fergus Pickering

              No idea. No posh voices though.

              • ADW

                Where did Nasser Hussain go to school? (Genuine qu)

                • Fergus Pickering

                  Good Question I don’t know.

                • Fergus Pickering

                  But I do now. He went to Forest Hill, and Independent school in Essex. Doesn’t sound very posh, I must say.

  • In2minds

    Would there be money in it for the good Lord?