Barring seasonal miracles (Australia deciding to cede the game as a Christmas present, or Kevin Pietersen digging in for a match-saving two-day double century), it appears that the current Ashes series will be over and lost by Christmas. It will then be followed by the time-honoured English tradition that follows any defeat by Australia – The Inquest. I would hazard a guess that The Inquest this time will differ in that previous Inquests have tended to the assumption that there was something deeply wrong and rotten in the whole structure of English cricket. Given that the whole structure of English cricket is now tailored specifically to producing a successful England team (and one that has an existence increasingly separate to the County game) the coming Inquest should focus more narrowly on what appears to be an inexplicable collective loss of nerve by Team England.
But let us have a look at how these Inquests were conducted in the past. This one is from The Cricketer Spring Annual of 1975:
Over the Winter England had been defeated 4-1 in Australia (the one victory coming in the last Test, when both Lillee and Thomson were injured). The defeat had been just as comprehensive as the current debacle promises to be and almost as little anticipated (Lillee had not been expected to recover his pace after a serious injury and Thomson was virtually unknown), but I should have thought it was more easily explained. Nonetheless, The Cricketer convened an eclectic panel of 25 (ranging from Norman Preston, the veteran Editor of Wisden (b. 1903) to Tim Brooke-Taylor) to investigate “in the hope that common diagnoses and formulae for recovery will emerge”.
There was a degree of consensus about the diagnosis, the most common complaints being:
Too many overseas players (10)
Too much one-day cricket (8)
Poor batting technique (8)
The 1935 change in the LBW law (7)
Too many older players in both County and Test cricket (4)
One or two comments had a strong period flavour. Charles Elliott (“recently retired Test match umpire”) wrote “No longer is cricket a financially attractive career – as it was in 1930, when I joined Derbyshire’s ground staff at 17 for more money than my father earned down the mine for a full day’s work” and “today’s socio-political attitudes with regard to University entrance have dried up the flow of Oxbridge players to the top level”. Norman Preston added “Also there has been too much travelling at weekends on crowded roads. The old-timers used to play regularly six days a week throughout the summer, but they travelled comfortably in trains and taxis.” (A complaint with which I have some sympathy.)
Bill Edrich’s solution was drastic and, perhaps, not entirely practical “We should go back right now to the pre-1935 [LBW] conditions – in fact why not go back to pre-1935 in all respects?“. Whimsically, Derbyshire fast bowler Fred Rumsey mused “Find me a current England player who plays club cricket on a Saturday. I sometimes wonder what potential is passed by ‘to waste its sweetness on the desert air‘”.
Several contributors (including Len Hutton) were, though, prepared to concede that, as M.J.K. Smith put it “finally any side with a distinct advantage in hostile pacemen and close catchers usually wins … this combination has always won matches and no doubt always will.” Oddly, no-one suggested that the solutions to regaining the Ashes might include appointing Mike Brearley as Captain, or that a young all rounder who’d just completed his first season at Somerset might have something to do with it, still less that the Urn might be handed to us on a plate (as it were) through the actions of a renegade Australian TV magnate.
One contribution does stand out, and, inevitably, it was from Alan Gibson:
“I am very glad to see that you are drawing attention to the alarming slump in English cricket. We have lost the rubber in Australia, only sixteen years after we were last beaten there. Even worse, when they win the series next summer, it will be a mere eleven years since they last beat us in England. Competitive interest in England-Australia matches cannot be sustained in the face of this disastrous run of defeats.
The remedy? I am not afraid to speak my mind. Sack the selection committee, sack the players, sack all those elitist writers whose newspapers sell less than two million a day. All English cricket needs is NEW BLOOD and a NEW LEAD, and if pressed I myself would be prepared (cont. p. 175).”
This appears to be aimed at Dexter (who had a column in the “Sunday Mirror”) and Illingworth. Apart from his contribution to the symposium Dexter crops up again in the same issue in the letters column, urging that Boycott should be made Captain, with Illingworth as Team Manager and the batting strengthened by Hayes, Ealham, Turner (of Hampshire, I think), Jesty, Randall and Willey. Illingworth has his own column, urging the selection of Wood, Hampshire, Willey, Lumb, Dudleston, John Steele and Balderstone. Fortunately, of course, the Authorities eventually saw sense and gave both Dexter and Illingworth their heads, with the result that the Urn remained safely in England’s possession throughout the 1990s.