David Warner’s dropping by Australia is latest chapter in unusual tale

Australia's David Warner on the outfield before the game with New Zealand for which he was dropped

David Warner‘s route to international cricket was unconventional. There is now just the faintest chance that his departure may be unconventional, too.

In January 2009 Warner became the first Australian cricketer since 1877 to represent his country without playing first-class cricket. He strolled out at the MCG in a Twenty20 international against South Africa and smashed 89 from 43 balls.

It took a while for his state of New South Wales – he was born just down the road from the SCG – to trust him to bat against a red ball. But soon it became apparent that Warner could not only hit the ball with astonishing power but that he possessed a sound enough technique that could prosper in the longer game. Since 2011 he has played 19 Tests for Australia as an opening batsman. He averages a respectable 39; he once carried his bat against New Zealand – an opportunity denied him on Wednesday at Edgbaston – and he was expected to be one of the cornerstones in Australia’s quest for the Ashes this summer.

Warner, 26, is very much the modern cricketer, albeit perhaps with an ancient difficulty once he has had a few drinks. His emergence at the highest level was swift and based purely on those one-day skills. He was rapidly whisked away to the Indian Premier League to earn money beyond most rookies’ dreams.

It all happened with bewildering speed in the Australian summer of 2008-09. And, like the vast majority of high-flyers, he opened a Twitter account.

Warner was not the first to discover that tweeting can be a costly embarrassment. His Twitter spat with two senior Australian journalists, Robert Craddock and Malcolm Conn, was a source of pre-Ashes merriment to those looking forward to the summer of 2013 on this side of the planet. It cost Warner a A$5,750 (£3,500) fine and he had to apologise. On the back of the “homework saga” this was wonderful pre-Ashes fare but hardly likely to have a real impact.

But now this. A drunken spat late at night with a member of the opposition is not unprecedented and taken in isolation it would be a 48-hour news story. But there is a pattern of malfunctioning within theAustralia cricket team at the moment. The pinpricks are so regular and constant that a scar is opening up.

Warner has two problems: he is behaving badly and he is not scoring any runs. In the two practice matches before the Champions Trophy he scored ducks, then only nine against England. Nor was he prolific for the Delhi Daredevils in the IPL before arriving here.

No doubt he is also testing the patience of the Australian hierarchy as he awaits the outcome of another hearing. After the Twitter affair there was a ringing endorsement from his captain, Michael Clarke. “He has got great potential as a leader. He is a wonderful guy and a wonderful player and I love playing cricket with him,” said Clarke.

Before the latest incident Australia’s current captain obviously had faith. Their previous captain may help to provide a solution. Indeed, the most obvious source of wise counsel for Warner is residing in England at this moment. The Australians may do well to make a call to Ricky Ponting – not to play, but to share some of his experiences with Warner.

In 1999 Ponting had a rather more vigorous and much publicised pub altercation – he ended up with a black eye – in Kings Cross in Sydney. Ponting came to acknowledge that he had a problem with alcohol and history confirms that this problem was solved. Despite that hiccup Ponting ended up playing 168 Tests and 375 ODIs and captaining Australia for seven years, and he now commands universal respect. Warner will never be such a great cricketer as Ponting, but his first Australia captain in that amazing T20 debut can now be a source of guidance and inspiration.

There will now be an extravaganza of speculation and gossip over Warner amid consternation that the victim was the angelic Joe Root. But expect Warner to still be around for the Ashes. However, he would do well to go easy on the grog, score some runs – and maybe close that Twitter account.

Sky Ashes arises to fight off the looming summer challenge of BT Sport

andrew strauss

With the launch imminent of BT Sport, its most serious rival yet, Sky is planning to rebrand one of its channels for a single sport for the first time as it establishes Sky Ashes.

Sky Sports 2 will be renamed as Sky Ashes for 63 days over the summer to provide a home for Sky’s live Ashes coverage. It will also feature the women’s Ashes, domestic cricket and various magazine and review shows, with the aim of underlining the broadcaster’s commitment to cricket.

The rebranding operation takes in the period when BT Sport is expected to launch two sports channels.

BT Sport will offer its coverage, plus ESPN, free to any customer taking its broadband package. The move is expected to usher in a new era of competition for Sky, which has previously seen off ITV Digital and Setanta.

The broadcaster’s capture of exclusive cricket rights from 2006 was highly controversial, sparking a debate over whether it would damage the long-term future of the sport. But Sky and the England and Wales Cricket Board claim the decision has been vindicated, generating more money for elite and grassroots cricket.

Sky is expected to claim that its uninterrupted live coverage of the Ashesunderlines its commitment to the sport. On free-to-air television, coverage even of Ashes Tests could be interrupted for the news, horse racing or other sports.

It is not the first time Sky has offered a channel dedicated to a single sport – it launched an F1 channel following its capture of those rights – but it is the first time it has renamed one of its main sports channels.

Partly as a result of the threat from BT, Sky recently extended its ECB contract until the end of the decade and has also tied up a series of other cricket-rights deals. However, BT is likely to make a play for the rights to International Cricket Council tournaments that are expected to be auctioned shortly.

Sky recently added the former England captain Andrew Strauss to a line up that also includes Sir Ian Botham, Shane Warne, Nasser Hussain, David Gower and Michael Atherton.

Australian home from home or national embarrassment?

David Warner dropped

 

I first went to the Walkabout in Covent Garden in 2008. It was Melbourne Cup, but London was dark, rainy and indifferent. That all changed when I set foot in the Walkabout. It was wild: some sort of Bacchanal or Daily Mail spread come to life. Girls in arse-skimming skirts and eye-gouging fascinators drunk and falling down; the boys, bleary-eyed and leering, in huddles playing drinking games.

After two years away from home, the concentration of Australian accents was jarring. Did I really talk like that? Did I really drink like that? The answer to both questions was yes. Just not in an Australian-themed pub.

I Ran-about from the Walkabout – ending up in some quiet old pub in Holborn, where there was no music, just a few old guys sitting around reading the Telegraph and drinking half-pints of bitter. This was more like it!

A class system of sorts forms as soon as you arrive in London and get your bearings – and the Walkabout is an important signifier in this. Are you the type of Australian who drinks at an Aussie-themed pub? Do you hang out for the free sheet TNT and circle the listings? Wonder when Wil Anderson is doing a gig in Shepherd’s Bush, how easy is it to get tickets to see Empire of the Sun, and whether you can stream hottest 100 or if it’s geo-blocked?

This type becomes more Australian when they leave Australia. “It’s the best country on earth,” they say, thinking of the sapphire glint of Sydney Harbour as they survey the silty Thames with pity. The Walkabout is their home away from home.

There is another tribe – let’s call them the globalised Australians – who try to hide any hints of their nationality. Their accents became neutralised; they could be from anywhere (or so they hope). They take their cues from the Guardian’s listing pages, rather than TNT.

They strive to make English friends, are wary of other Australians and drink proper warm beer in proper English pubs. The past isn’t erased, exactly but this tribe doesn’t want to draw attention to their nationality. They take on that particularly English characteristic: they don’t want to stand out. In their reinvention you can often detect a violent rejection of all things Australian. To have a drink in an outback-themed pub isn’t just a simple nostalgic exercise but the prime symptom of some deep character flaw, an inability to let go of the homeland and fully participate in the new place.

Needless to say – each group is embarrassed by the other.

Sometimes the worlds collide. The globalised Australian might have a cousin in town, weepy and needy, wondering why she travelled to London, and why it’s so cold and everyone is so rude. The cousin, comfortable only traveling on the Piccadilly Line and yearning for home, will want to meet at the Walkabout– the one place where she feels understood, and has her bearings. Her cousin will want to head south to Bermondsey to this fabulous Jamaican place he’s read about. He was invited to the Walkabout once, to watch the AFL Grand Final, but even though he desperately wanted to see the game, his rejection of the Walkabout (and what it stood for) was too absolute to overcome.

Those that assume there is no Australian class system might like to witness these fraught plans to meet for dinner.

Although I didn’t revisit the Covent Garden Walkabout, in other parts of the world, I have visited Australian-themed pubs. Usually I have been travelling on my own, and felt lonely. I go in hoping to find a kindred spirit, another Australian who’s washed up on some strange distant shore. (Brussels, in the fishing village of Sagres in Portugal, in Amsterdam). Usually it’s just some local guy behind the bar, who doesn’t even care that you are from Australia.

But travel weary and low, nursing your pint of Fosters in an empty bar under an Australian flag, while Men at Work sing of a land down under, can sometimes just be enough to remind yourself that you have a home.

20 great Ashes moments No14: England’s retort to the press, 1986

Ian Botham

It is hard to think of many more jubilantly received, gaudily celebrated and entirely misleading sporting triumphs than England’s Ashes victory in Australia in 1986-7. It is a series that stands on its own, a victory that, on the face of it, seems to have pointed absolutely nowhere. Whereas pretty much every other Ashes tour of modern times has seemed to fit into a wider narrative of rise and fall, of the see-sawing of transparent and easily grasped eras of cricketing supremacy.

 

Not so with Mike Gatting’s piratical band of all-sorts and fading greats, who against all expectations retained the urn before the New Year with a victory at the Gabba that would come to resemble the final gloriously sonorous tock of some dying grandfather clock. Most victories in sport seem to point to some wider, happier, more glorious future. Or at least, they seem to point to more victories. But this one was instead the end of something, the last twitch of life in the old England, the cobwebbed, sozzled, trigger-happy hierarchies that would be flushed out in time by the march of central contracts, modern coaching structures and the ongoing Sky Sports-funded corporate management pyramid.

 

And so 1986-7 has become fixed in time as the Withnail Tour, the moment when even England’s rakishly stopped clock told the right time one last time. Here they come, that vagabond troupe of tiny-shorted charisma-artists conga-ing off the long-haul Qantas, bottle in hand, smeared in deep heat (“there’s none left for you …”) missing out Monday and coming up smiling on Tuesday morning in Elton John’s penthouse apartment with the urn in one hand and a hank of Phillip DeFreitas’s Diana Ross wig in the other.

 

If anything the tour has gone down as a kind of backs to the wall tale, an example of how team spirit and enduring class can confound expectation. In particular for the long-suffering professional sportsman – and in this case it must be said unhelpfully so – it has become a kind of stick with which to beat the nay-saying professional journalist. The main culprit here is of course the columnist Martin Johnson, who in the buildup to the first Test famously wrote: “There are only three things wrong with this England team. They can’t bat, can’t bowl and can’t field.”

 

Johnson may have based this not just on England’s risible warm-up performances, which involved being bowled out for 135 and 152 by state sides, but also the run of eight defeats in 11 Tests in the preceding year and a bit. But as clangingly, gloriously wrong calls go it remains a defining example of the genre.

 

And yet, the fact is Johnson was half-right. Or rather, he was pre-right. Dig a little deeper, sift through the minutiae of exactly how – and against whom – Gatting’s Gadabouts retained the Ashes, and what their legacy would be to those England sides that followed, and it starts to look as though Johnson’s only real crime was getting in there a year early.

 

From the end of the tour to the date they were finally, and indeed righteously trounced in the return Ashes series, England under the revolving captaincy of Gatting, David Gower, Graham Gooch, Chris Cowdrey and John Emburey won just one Test match out of 24 (at Lord’s against Sri Lanka). The prevailing orthodoxy here is wrong. History did not prove Martin Johnson – and by extension sardonic non-playing broadsheet hacks everywhere – wrong. History proved him right minus six months.

 

Along with many others, Johnson had reckoned without a final twitch of the dying hand of England’s big-ego greats of the mid-1980s. It was a haphazardly rich seam of talent. And really, looking at it now, this was a capable and well balanced England team. The five-man bowling attack at Brisbane for the opening Test was made up of Graham Dilley and DeFreitas with the new ball, supported by Ian Botham and the left-arm, right-arm spin of the dominant Embers-Edmonds axis. A middle order of Gatting, David Gower, Allan Lamb, Ian Botham and Jack Richards would all score hundreds in the series.

 

But beyond all of this, 1986-7 just looks like one of the more fondly memorable, more likable, more thrillingly large-scale Ashes tours, an anecdote-strewn final day in the sun for the traditions of the old-school England cricket tour: unstyled, booze-sodden, and amateurish in the best sense of the word. No doubt Andrew Strauss’s all-conquering 2010 tourists provide a more sustainable template, a tighter statistical model, a more uniformly vest-clad sense of corporate identity. But only one of these tours featured a Christmas fancy dress party complete with SS-uniformed ex-captain; a match-winning pace bowler jostled out of his hangover with half an hour to go before the Boxing Day Test; and quite so many archive photographs of people – many of them musical celebrities – pouring drinks over each others’ heads.

 

If two of the tour’s key themes were party-hatted japery and extreme match-winning performance, it is no surprise that both should come together in the person of Ian Botham. In between back twinges and outside activities Botham effectively decided the series, setting up both England’s Test victories with a brilliant, windmilling, floppy-mulleted hundred at the Gabba, and a spell of eerily irresistible medium-paced destruction at Melbourne. Albeit in the event these were really the end times for Botham, and for England the dawning of the long fallow period of post-Botham. Six years on from 1981, and often rather buried within the generalised decline of mature Botham, this was effectively Botham’s Ashes 2.0, a last glimpse of the beguiling talent still present within the personage of late-career Angry Beefy, a cricketer who always seemed to be engaged in sending a paunchily defiant ringlet-tossing V-sign in the direction of somebody or other.

 

This was a rather sullen cricketing great, contorted by fame and cricketing wear and tear, but still containing within him the essence of that wonderfully pure swing bowling talent of the pre-pop star period. Botham never took another five wicket bag or scored another hundred for England. After his tour-ending efforts in the decisive victory at Melbourne he only played one more Test abroad (five years later in Wellington at the height of the revolving door years: in the first innings he batted at eight below Dermot Reeve and David Lawrence).

 

But what efforts they were. England had batted slowly on the opening day of the first Test at the Gabba. Chris Broad, man of the series by dint of his three hundreds in five matches, would later write in his autobiography about the number of balls he and Bill Athey were able to leave on the opening morning, the tangible sense of a listing ship being righted, and the obvious frustration of Australia’s depleted and transitional attack. Broad made eight from 35 balls but, given the buildup, Australia had expected something more than 198 for two at the end of that first day.

They certainly hadn’t counted on Botham’s adrenal assault the following morning, emerging after two quick wickets to take Australia’s attack apart in the old, grand style. The high point of the match, and indeed the last six years of Botham’s international career, was the over from Merv Hughes in which he went from 97 all the way up to 119, the final boundary of a 22-run over a hook that rebounded halfway back to the square from the boundary fence. In four hours Botham made 138 off 174 balls, with 13 fours and four sixes and utterly transformed the mood of both teams in the process.

 

In the traditional fashion Johnson’s piece of newspaper waggery had been posted up in the dressing room beforehand. After their seven-wicket victory at Australia’s stronghold England had “Can’t bat, can’t bowl, can’t field” T-shirts printed and over the course of the series they proceeded to successfully perform all three of these activities. Broad, a worthy international player of ungainly methods, had a series of unrepeatable brilliance, nudging, clipping and crunching his way to 489 runs at 69.57. Gladstone Small shared the first-innings wickets with Botham at Melbourne, but Dilley’s tempo-setting spell of swing bowling in the first Test was even more important. They even fielded brilliantly at times, John Emburey’s tumbling one-handed stunner at Perth during the one-day series taking the laurels as Channel Nine’s Classic Catch of 1986-87.

 

And so, nay-saying hacks duly dispatched, future ills safely staved off, England supporters could look forward to a future in which international cricket was dominated by the enduring talents of Broad, Small and James Whitaker, while fly-by-nights such as Steve Waugh, David Boon and Merv Hughes were consigned decisively to the dustbin of history. And this is of course the wider story here. For all the defiance of Gatting’s last-gaspers, this was not a galvanising victory for English cricket. Dig deeper and there is a broader sense of unchecked structural decline, and of two cricketing nations in contrasting states of retrenchment, one of which learned far more in defeat than the other did in victory.

 

If Botham, the departing great, embodies England’s victory, Waugh, the man lurking in the back of the photograph, speaks to the wider picture. Not that there was any real evidence in the series of what was to come from Waugh in his role as on-field curator of Australia’s decade of game-changing greatness. Waugh entered the series averaging 16 with the bat and 29 with the ball. He batted at No8 in the first Test and bowled 21 overs in the first innings. Aged 21 he was an all-rounder, a fill-in merchant, a work in progress. He wouldn’t score a Test hundred until the opening match of the next Ashes series three years later (the first of 32). But in an Australia team depleted, still, by the retirements of Gregg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh, plus the absence of assorted rebel South Africa tourists, Waugh stood out as one of those players identified by Allan Border and Bob Simpson as a key part of the sustainable Test and one day future.

 

Australia may have reached a nadir: but it was a cinematically vigorous, grasp-the-moment kind of rock bottom. Australia knew they were in decline while England, in thrall to the grand-scale misdirection of Ashes triumph, would continue to drift. Their renaissance began even during this Ashes series, finding a spur in the fifth Test, won thrillingly on the final afternoon, and more noticeably in the World Cup the following year, when Waugh was there at the end as Australia beat England by nine runs in the final.

 

From there success was based on the complementary tides of a streamlined management, a well-ordered sense of single-mindedness, and above all of the generation of brilliant talents that were allowed to flower under the Simpson-Taylor axis in the early 1990s. Whereas England, a team without a plan, carried across the line by the dying momentum of enduring Beefiness, simply fell apart. They didn’t win another match until August 1988. They didn’t win another Ashes series until 2005. The next home Ashes saw 29 England players selected across five Tests compared to Australia’s 12 in a 4-0 thrashing of bewildering finality.

 

The Aussie team that arrived in England that year had been dubbed by the English media (yes: them again) as “possibly the worst side ever to tour England”. And yet in Mark Taylor, Geoff Marsh, David Boon, Dean Jones, Waugh, and Border they had a top six that would end up with a combined total of 112 Test hundreds while a thoroughly spooked and rudderless England simply hurled bodies into the fray – Alan Igglesden! Phil Newport! Kim Barnett! – like trench commanders on the Western Front whistling up the one-legged reservists.

 

Four more years on, and eight years on from Gatting’s Fancy Dress All-Sorts, that last Ashes triumph of the old order was already looking more like a kind of defeat. In 1994-95 an England squad containing Gatting and Graham Gooch (combined age: 78) were soundly beaten by opponents that had already morphed into an irresistibly streamlined force, with Waugh now the unsmiling prince of the middle order. On that tour England were finally reduced to fulfilling Johnson’s pre-emptive slur: much has been made of Michael Slater gobbling up DeFreitas’s opening delivery of the series, but Slater’s third boundary of his innings came from a Martin McCague full toss outside leg stump that was pretty much hurled over the rope by a sprawling Phil Tufnell. The following year Australia beat West Indies in the West Indies and the ascent to the peak from the bottom, and thereafter into one of the truly great teams, had been completed in double quick time.

 

And yet for all the sense of a gloss being placed on a deeply nurtured malaise, of an unearned triumphalism that served only those present and on their way out, it is impossible not to look back with fondness and even a little wide-eyed reverence at the outline of the Gatt Pack: those singlet-clad, big-haired big personalities, all hotel room japery, paunchy larks and a sense of unyieldingly pre-modern sporting machismo. For England this really was the last of the summer wine, one last jolly before the convulsions and disappointments of the decade to come.

Joe Root, England’s victimised boy wonder, bats like a little devil

joe root

The roar Joe Root received at The Oval seemed a touch louder than is typical anywhere outside Headingley. It was as though being clobbered by David Warner had endeared him all the more to the England fans. There is something pleasingly down to earth, after all, about a man getting into a ruck in a Walkabout. He may be the best English batsman in a generation but he still drinks in the same dives as the rest of us. It helps, too, that picking on Root seems a particularly pitiless thing to do. Just look at him. Butter would not melt in the mouth of the beardless boy wonder.

Well, here is a pop quiz, posed by the man from the Times in the press box: “About which English batsman did Tim Bresnan recently say: ‘Sometimes he is quite cheeky and you want to slap him, but you have to hold yourself’?” Please pop your answers on a postcard addressed to David Warner, care of the Australia dressing room.

Root’s batting certainly has an impudent streak. He played the scoop three times in his innings of 68 off 55 balls, a shot still so new that no one has quite settled on exactly what to call it. Root, along with Jos Buttler, is part of a generation who have grown up playing it. It seems extravagant but it is second nature to the young shavers.

Root used it once to hit a full delivery from Shaminda Eranga to fine-leg for four and, mind-bogglingly, twice played a reversed version where he switched his grip and sent the ball to third man. The bouncing ball scattered the unsuspecting spectators there. Presumably they thought they were safe from harm where they sat. Root, though, seems to have a shot to find every part of the ground. His wagon-wheel showed a perfect distribution, his runs coming wherever there were gaps to be found. Jonathan Trott, by way of contrast, did not hit a thing between cover and mid-on.

Root meant those three scoop strokes but even he would have struggled to repeat another, when he tried to play a pull but caught the ball with the toe-end of his bat and hit it away square past point, the opposite direction to the one he was aiming in. He broke into a goofy grin after that, still giggling as he finished his second run.

It sometimes seems as if Root is taking part in a school sports day rather than an international match, just because he takes such obvious pleasure in what he is doing. And his slight shoulders, smooth cheeks, and spindly arms make him look even younger than he is.

Then he bats with such puppyish enthusiasm, always bouncing on his heels and bounding along for his runs as though chasing a roll of Andrex down the wicket.

Trott and he make an enjoyably odd couple in the middle. The elder batsman, mindful of how much trouble the two of them have had with their running, often shooting stern looks at the youngster. When Root finishes a run he instinctively takes two quick strides out of the crease before looking up to see whether his partner is going to send him back or not. Every single is an opportunity for a second.

That hustle works well in the middle order. He took no time to settle himself in when he arrived with the score on 129 for two in the 29th over. He took a single from his first ball and at least another from each of his next eight.

He had made it into double figures without doing anything so risky as dancing around David Warner while wearing a comedy wig. England’s run rate started to increase as soon as he came to the wicket, creeping up from four and a half to a flat five.

Root’s half-century, his fourth in 12 innings, came from 43 balls. It included only two boundaries, that scoop off Eranga and a vicious pull off Nuwan Kulasekara. He hardly stopped to celebrate it, barely offering a wave of his bat to acknowledge the applause. By then he was in the thick of an intriguing duel with Lasith Malinga, who should have had him caught, twice. Tillakaratne Dilshan missed him once at backward point and Kumar Sangakkara did so again running round towards square-leg from behind the stumps. Root’s riposte to the second of the two missed chances was a pair of perfect cover drives, each for four, as if to show that he is talented enough to play the fine old shots as well as the fancy new ones.

Then Malinga got him, at last, with a slower ball that Root tried to slog-sweep into the stiff wind blowing over from the Harleyford Road.

As Root walked back to the dressing room, where his team-mates were on their feet applauding his innings, he shot a wink at the camera and for a moment one could just see a spark of the devil inside him.

England’s Madness was a house of fun compared to captain sensible

 

 

Alastair Cook

 

One of the best minor characters in Catch‑22, Joseph Heller’s minor-character masterpiece, is Colonel Cargill, an airforce commander who in peacetime was a sharp, aggressive, well-spoken, utterly incompetent marketing executive, and who in wartime has transferred these skills to the theatre of operations to become a commanding, meticulous, woefully inept serving officer. “He was a self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody,” Heller writes of Cargill, who has managed to conquer all sorts of natural advantages – wealth, connections, a fine mind – in order to earn his gold-plated reputation for producing failure, confusion and incompetence to order.

There was once a time when the leap from Colonel Cargill’s talent for mob‑handed failure to England’s 50-over cricket team would have been less an actual leap more a kind of gently sighing downwards lurch. These days, though, not so much. In fact at the halfway stage in a brilliantly entertaining ICC Champions Trophy tournament England – who for so many years took to the field on these occasions beneath a fug of densely knitted confusion, trousers hoicked up, hat on upside down, blueprints and plans and cue cards tumbling from their mismatched turn-ups – have looked instead bafflingly staid and steady, even during the defeat by Sri Lanka that means their Champions Trophy campaign may yet fail to make it through the weekend.

No doubt this is a good thing. Over two profitable years, at least at home, England have shed almost completely that Colonel Cargill-style sense of portable man-made confusion and are instead enjoying some success by sending out what is basically a grudgingly tweaked version of the Test team designed to keep calm and carry about its business in the manner of a grand Victorian family in humiliatingly reduced circumstances, smiling glassily, eating their corned beef off antique bone china washed down with a gravy boat full of dishwater, and generally helping mother carry on as though everything’s still just perfectly fine and normal.

Of course there are plans and theories still kicking about. There is the ongoing need to “build a platform” which involves Alastair Cook and Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott spending the opening overs looking as though they’re just out for a bit of a walk, pottering about by the bins, fixing something in the garden. But this is no more than a small-scale fixation compared to the peak years of The Madness, that glorious overkill of schemes and plans and brown paper and string big ideas that was the lot of England’s 50-over cricket for much of the last two decades. Often a team that fails consistently will be accused of having no tactics, or at least the wrong tactics. With England it was more a case of having too many tactics, plans A-Z all unleashed indiscriminately like a grand, Soviet bureaucracy of the old school with a million half-cocked and imitative ideas all in train at once – pinch-hitters, all-rounders, papier-mache denim jeans, a wicketkeeper batsman carved entirely from potatoes.

Plus of course as well as All The Tactics, England were for a while intent on using All The Players. Even as Test selection dwindled towards the current policy of mawkish fidelity, so the revolving door of the 1990s remained in place in 50-over cricket. In one three-year period between Steve Harmison and Ravi Bopara making their ODI debuts England blooded 29 other players. Although even within this there were still some immutable rules. For example wicketkeepers, not opening batsmen must open the batting. And you can never ever get enough all-rounders.

And really it is around the hair-clogged sinkhole of the late middle order (34 different England No8s in the past 10 years; 32 different No7s) – that The Madness continues to linger most stubbornly. Like the melting, cowering Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it is around this black hole that England’s wide-eyed late order occasionals still huddle, from the continued insistence that Chris Woakes is actually a one-day player, back through the receding memory of the middle order Handyman Years, epitomised by Ronnie Irani – a kind of Status Quo cricketer: furiously committed, almost entirely immobile, gamely burping out his three-chord repertoire – to that illusory high point under Adam Hollioake, when a team of window-cleaners, lion tamers, violinists and charismatic Victorian adventurers returned from their grand winter tour with a selection of elephant feet, Mayan gold, slave girls, aristocratic venereal diseases and – oh yes – buried at the bottom of the suitcase, the Sharjah Cup.

Where did it come from, The Madness? In part it must be to do with systems, or rather a systems overload. England’s recent period of success in the longer form has been based around a hugely interventionist management structure, from hands-on corporate overlords to dictatorial track-suited coach. And this works just fine in Test cricket, where it is enough simply to follow the wider plan: go slow, take stock and if in doubt consult the baseball-capped support gallery. It works in Twenty20 too where the only plan (fast, not slow) is the only plan.

But 50-over cricket demands something else, a sense of fluidity, a roving in-game intelligence, at times even an absence of set plans. Adjustments must be made, targets set, hunches abandoned. And perhaps it is here that English cricketers struggle, these eagerly branded academy products with their ever-ready support network, their game-plans, their rote-learnt innovations. Oddly enough, for all the glorious stability of recent Test teams, England were, all thing being equal, slightly better at 50-over cricket in pre-modern times, those paunchy, maverick big personality talents of the 1980s perhaps better suited to the occasional need to adapt, retrench, counterattack and generally make it up as you go along.

Quite what happens next remains to be seen. For now The Madness, that sense of overloaded Cargill-cricket self-immolation has all but disappeared under Cook, so steely, so intelligent, so utterly sensible. Perhaps though there is a case still for retaining in among all the corporate stability just a tiny homeopathic infusion of the old twitchiness. Not so much plans A-Z all at the same time, but at least plans C, D and E, a little beneficial Madness still lurking in the back pocket beyond the odd slightly mannered reverse sweep. If only because win or lose – and it has always been, let’s be honest, mainly lose – it was always so grippingly, hopelessly entertaining.

US basketball needs bounce

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There are those who think that there’s only one thing wrong with basketball, the sport of urban America: Michael Jordan isn’t playing any more.

You can see their point. Since the most talented player in the game’s history last played nearly three years ago, a lot of the lustre has gone. That and many of the fans. Attendances are down outside the main centres such as New York and so too is the television audience.

One in every five who used to watch on NBC has found something else to do other than watch the three games available back-to-back on the small screen on a Sunday.

So when Jordan says that there is a 99.9% chance that he will not return, all anyone sees is the 0.1% chance that he will do so. For one thing, Abe Pollin, owner of the hapless Washington Wizards, where Jordan is director of basketball operations says: “The odds are that he’s going to come back.”

Then there is “Super” Mario Lemieux, the all-time ice hockey great, who knows something about comebacks himself, having returned for the Pittsburgh Penguins at the end of last year, as good as new after being out for three and a half years.

Lemieux, who has had cancer and problems with his back, is a golf partner of Jordan and says he expects to see the 38-year-old, who won six National Basketball Association titles with the Chicago Bulls, back on the court next year. “I think it’s very exciting for basketball and obviously I’m very excited about it,” said Lemieux. “He’s going to give it a shot and he’s working very hard. I’m sure when he gets back he’ll be the best player again.”

If Jordan does come back, it will not be for the money. He still rakes in about $40m a year in endorsements but it is said that he has kept a close watch on how Tiger Woods has advanced on his redoubt as probably still the world’s most famous sportsman.

But quite a lot has changed since Jordan’s last act as a professional, claiming the basket that won the Bulls their last championship. This is not simply a reference to the damage Jordan did to the tip of his right index finger a couple of years ago – the victim of a cigar cutter – which makes it hard for him to hold the ball as he would wish.

Rather, the views of one of the leading coaches of the day must be taken into account. Jeff Van Gundy, the single-minded designer of plays for the New York Knicks, has identified debilitating factors that go far beyond the NBA’s lack of a transcendent Jordan-like beacon for the game: golf and God.

Van Gundy, a diminutive, self-critical guru of glumness, is the first to say that he is not the most positive of men. His team, he says, are “sleepy and lethargic.”

Nor is he the most culturally aware. He is baffled by the observation that at the age of 39 he is not that much older than some of his players, yet each listens to music that the other cannot fathom (80% of the players in the NBA are black).

And what does he listen to? “One of my college room-mates was into the Police and I got to like them. But I hear one of the guys left the band.” The coach is talking about Sting. “Yeah, that’s it, I understand he’s got a solo career, right?”

But golf and God? He says that they are the nemesis of the modern game: “And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way to God.” So what does he mean? “We let a preacher into our locker room. Spends as much time as he wants with our players before games.

“Now, do people in offices have preachers coming into their place of business, interrupting their work? No. They have to do it before or after work. They don’t get to do it during work. That’s the problem I have.

“As a team and an organisation, you’ve got to try to minimise those distractions. It used to be alcohol and women more. I think we’ve given this guy, this pastor, too much freedom.

“And I think the interaction between people before games, opposing sides, the fraternisation, is wrong for the league, it’s wrong for competition. Everybody’s hugging before games, praying together.”

This guy, this pastor, an assistant minister at a church in Baltimore, says he’s only trying to help with his ten-minute Bible studies and several of the players were upset by the coach’s performance.

Van Gundy says that he stands by his opinions though he wishes he had not expressed them. He had better make an accommodation with the G-force: Michael Jordan plays golf and he is the nearest thing to a god that basketball has seen.