This time last year, England’s cricketers were 2-0 up against Australia, two thirds of the way towards their third consecutive series victory in sport’s longest-established international contest. Not quite top of the world, they were nevertheless a good team in the prime of life. The winter before, they had beaten India on their dusty pitches, quite an achievement.
What a falling-off there has been. Since the turn of the year, England have lost Graeme Swann, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen, three senior players, to retirement, mental fragility and banishment. They have also lost seven of their last nine Test matches, the latest against India at Lord’s by 95 runs after they had won an important toss.
Another senior player, Matt Prior, the wicket-keeper, announced after the match that he was standing down to get himself properly fit, which begs the question: what was an unfit player doing in the side? It all leaves Alastair Cook, the beleaguered captain, in a pickle. Out of form himself, Cook is not one of life’s natural leaders. Now he must learn to score runs again at a time when England have forgotten how to win.
There was a time when Cook scored runs, big runs, every time he picked up his bat. The Essex opener made a century on his Test debut eight years ago, and has since added 24 more. No Englishman in history matches his record of 25 Test centuries. This is not a duffer we are talking about. Here is a batsman who has proved himself to be, in that much-abused phrase, world-class.
As Cook was labouring at Lord’s, another captain of England took the decision to stand down. Steven Gerrard led the side in 38 of his 114 appearances, but it cannot be said that he was a world-class footballer. A fine player for Liverpool certainly, but he was found wanting at the highest level, as England footballers generally are.
To understand how far he fell short of the standards required to be a footballer of true world class, Gerrard has only to study the performance Sebastian Schweinsteiger gave in the recent World Cup final. The Bayern Munich midfielder was superlative as Germany beat Argentina to win their fourth World Cup. No matter what the flatterers of the telly may say, this country does not produce footballers of the first rank. The last England player to give as much to the team as Schweinsteiger does, game in game out, was the late Alan Ball, who won his last cap in 1975. Gerrard, good player though he is, would not get into the German team. Not a single Englishman would.
In cricketers, thankfully, we are not short of talent. Although they have struggled recently there is no doubting the high talent of James Anderson, Ian Bell, Stuart Broad and Cook. In Joe Root, the 23-year-old Yorkshireman, England have an batsman who may graduate to greatness, and the young men who have come into the side this summer have all contributed with runs and wickets.
For true world class, the man of the hour is Rory McIlroy. The Ulsterman, not yet 26, won a superb Open championship at Hoylake. It was his third triumph in one of the four ‘majors’, which leaves only the Masters at Augusta to complete the set. No other European golfer has ever won more than two of the four, so the Irishman is charting his course towards immortality. Sometimes we forget just how good top sportsmen and women are. McIlroy’s Hoylake adventure served as a necessary reminder.
Roger Alton is away.