One of the many interesting moments of the recent West Indies v England Test series was when Alastair Cook, the greatest batsman in English first-class cricket today, said: "You never, never, never say never, because you don't know what the situation is. But I am very, very unlikely ever to play for England again."
Cook, though still preparing to turn out for Essex this season, has retired from international cricket. Yet he will be as aware as the rest of us that he is still a man at the top of his game, and England's top-order batting, especially the opening partnership, remains a debacle. Imagine it is August, and England have continued their run of form in the West Indies (yes, I know we won the last Test, but I blame Jason Holder for being banned for a slow over rate).
Alastair Cook has retired from international cricket, but could he be the answer for England’s struggling top order?Credit:AP
Say England are 2-1 down with two to play – we do not seem to have drawn Tests any more, because of the growing lack of first-class cricketing skills among Test players – and the Ashes are almost lost.
Say the present selection of opening batsmen have continued the debacle: Keaton Jennings doing his impersonation of a rabbit in the proverbial headlights, Joe Denly looking as though he would be happier in the Minor Counties, and Rory Burns desperate for someone to help him stop the rot. And say Cook, in the shamefully limited number of first-class matches even a non-Test cricketer will have had the chance to play by the end of August, has been thrashing county attacks up and down the land, and has proved, once more, that he is peerless as an opener.
Imagine you are the England selectors, and you have to try to stop the national team losing to their most significant adversaries.
You have one of the best opening batsmen in the history of the game still young (34), fit and probably getting bored of playing against the second-rate county trundlers. Do you respect his decision, made in a state of mental exhaustion after a poor run of form, never to play Test cricket again, even though by doing so defeat is all the more likely? Or do you take him at his word, that you "never, never, never say never", and ring him up and tell him what England expects? The answer should not be difficult to reach.
We have been here before. In 1956, when Australia were touring – the series best remembered for Jim Laker's 19 for 90 on a sticky pitch at Old Trafford – there was another problem with the opening batsmen. Peter Richardson and Colin Cowdrey had done creditably in the first Test at Nottingham, putting on 53 in the first innings and 151 in the second.
But in the second at Lord's they managed 22 and 35 against the opening attack of Keith Miller and Ron Archer – partnerships that these days would be regarded as a great effort – and after England lost by 185 runs in a low-scoring match there had to be changes.
The selectors persisted with Richardson and Cowdrey for the third Test, but England stumbled when Alan Oakman was out for four on debut and when Archer had Richardson caught behind. Then, however, the team played their trump card.
At the selection meeting before the Test, one of the selectors, the Lancashire opener Cyril Washbrook, was asked to leave. For several years after World War II he had formed an acclaimed opening partnership with Len Hutton; they opened 51 times for an average stand of 60. After a difficult tour of Australia in 1950-51, and against the wishes of Hutton when he became captain, Washbrook indicated he did not wish to be picked again and, in time, was made a selector.
While he was out of the room at that meeting, the selectors decided to ask Washbrook to play in the third Test at Headingley, to bolster the batting. He had been in good, but not spectacular, form for Lancashire, and was in his 42nd year.
He ended the season averaging just under 36, but no batsman averaged 50 or over: 1956 was a bowler's year. As well as his 19 at Old Trafford, Laker also took all 10 in an innings for Surrey against the tourists.
Washbrook had bottle and a level head, and although over 40, had regained an enormous amount of confidence since leaving Test cricket.
In a predominantly wet season with its share of stickies – this was the age of uncovered wickets – he could be relied upon to bring the right mental attitude to the fray. And so he did. He had batted down the order at four or five for Lancashire since becoming the club's first professional captain, so going in at five for England, as he did at Leeds, was not an entirely unusual experience. And with the home side at 3-17 when he got to the crease, they were lucky to have him.
He joined Peter May, the captain, who had held the batting together in the defeat at Lord's just over a fortnight earlier (those were the days when the tourists would go off and play four counties between matches, and those counties would not field their second XIs against them). May made 101 and Washbrook 98, before Richie Benaud had him lbw; he and May put on 187 for the fourth wicket.
England made 325 in 167.4 overs – not even two an over, as the home side realised the Australians would need to be ground down – and despite that rather average score, still won by an innings and 42 runs, as Laker, warming up for Manchester, took 11 and Lock seven wickets in the match. But for Washbrook on his return, and the partnership he had with May, England could have faced another defeat.
The selectors had been attacked for picking Washbrook, 5½ years after his last international match; but their decision was amply vindicated. His partnership with May lasted almost six hours, before May was dismissed, and was the highest for England against Australia since the war. In Laker's Test, Washbrook made just six, but England won again by an innings, and the Ashes were theirs.
The notion of "retiring from Test cricket" while a cricketer carries on playing the first-class game must be spurious. It is ideal to develop talent for the future, but what if that talent is not there, or will not be developed? I hope Ed Smith and those he consults on selection will listen carefully to what Cook has said.
Every qualified player who turns out in the first-class game in the coming season must be available to be picked for England and if England need them, they must be picked whether they think they have "retired" or not. It was quite clear that Cook needed a rest when he stood down after his magnificent match at the Oval last year, and who can blame him? But if he is never, never, never saying never, and if the dolts of the England and Wales Cricket Board will not provide more first-class cricket to help other openers with perhaps less natural ability than Cook, the former star may yet have to shine again.
The Telegraph, London
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