This week they named the men to defend the Ashes. The trumpets of 12 months ago are muted, the martial drumbeats muffled. It has not been a good year. I fear the worst. England’s batting now looks fitful, the bowling feckless. Of the three champions, the flighty daredevil Pietersen might win you a Test match, but not a whole series; ditto the moody fast bowler Harmison; and the dynamic Flintoff’s fitness will be a worry all winter. After a few one-dayer warm-ups in India, the first Test match begins in Brisbane on 23 November. We shall see what we shall see, but I fancy the Australians are feeling more smug than usual.
Meanwhile, here’s a pub quiz XI for you, off the top of my head, not even bothering Wisden. What has this team in common? John Stephenson, Mark Benson, Andy Lloyd, Alan Butcher, James Whitaker, Paul Parker, Tony Pigott, Joey Benjamin, Mike Smith and, of course, the two grunting, hirsute Sidebottoms, père Arnie and fils Ryan, who both bowled their boots off for England (till the blood seeped through) and then were asked no more. One-cap wonders, each cruelly given a debutant’s bum’s rush by the selectors after a solitary Test appearance. I reckon a new one signed on this week — for the betting is that the Gloucestershire captain Jon Lewis, given a single Test match this June, will never play another one. Hectic pace, wherever it’s sprayed, is now the thing, and against vengeful international batsmen they say Lewis is far too slow for an opening bowler.
Does county allegiance make you feel it more sharply? Or has Gloucester always been treated more shoddily with no end of single-cappers down the years? Another tidy trim and disciplined line-and-length new ball bowler rated ‘too slow’ was Lewis’s predecessor for ‘Glawse’ Mike Smith who, nine summers ago, came just once to the Ashes feast at Headingley, never to sup again. A first boyhood hero was lovely Tetbury plumber and southpaw spinner Sam Cook; just out of the RAF in 1947, in his very first season England called him up against the South Africans on the Trent Bridge featherbed; his grizzled old mentor Tom Goddard, worried for him, advised ‘ring ’em up, Sam, tell ’em you’ve got flu.’ Sam was slaughtered by Melville and Nourse — nought for 127 in just 18 overs. They said he was too slow even for a slow bowler and, what’s more, he couldn’t field, preferring, contemplatively, to chew the cud down at third man at each end. Sam was buried at Tetbury parish church 10 years ago last week; the cortège filed out on a golden autumn day and followed his coffin all the way down to the freshly dug grave alongside the furthest churchyard wall — and his good old buddy Arthur Milton whispered, ‘Dear ol’ Sam: now content at deep third man for all eternity!’
Sam’s predecessor as the county’s slow-spin sorcerer was a very different kettle of cove, grizzly cuss and Prestbury bolshie, Charlie Parker, an all-time great; but he, too, was picked just once for England (it rained), which in his case was criminal. Eight years later, in 1929, Lord’s patrician and perennial chairman of selectors Sir Pelham Warner was physically attacked one night in the foyer of Bristol’s Grand Hotel. By Charlie. His county spin partner Reg Sinfield leapt in to save Warner from certain strangulation. Possibly as a reward, Sinfield later played one Test for England (and bowled Bradman). But just the one.