A roofer’s tale

‘As a rule they will refuse even to sample a foreign dish, they regard such things as garlic and olive oil with disgust, life is unliveable to them unless they have tea and puddings.’ George Orwell.

There is a story told about Fred Trueman, who turned up to a Test match at Headingley some years ago and cast a mordant eye over a debutant who was opening the bowling for England from the Kirkstall Lane End. It didn’t take long for the first splutter (and here you’ll have to do your own best Trueman impression): ‘there have been many fine bowlers run down that hill for England,’ said Fred, who then paused with the comic timing for which he was famous, ‘and he is not one of them.’

The bowler referred to was Neil Mallender, the classic horse for an idiosyncratic course. It was an anecdote that sprung to mind this week as Darren Pattinson took the new ball for England from the very same end that Mallender did, with great success it should be added, some sixteen years ago. Fred, of course, is not around to pass judgement now, although there were plenty of people last Friday morning in full-on-Trueman mode, who just couldn’t fathom what was going off out there. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a selection provoke more comment, most of it adverse.

The BBC’s cricket correspondent, Jonathan Agnew, was incandescent. Trying to gather some last minute information on the internet about Pattinson, he was redirected to the Cricket Australia website. Then, interviewing Pattinson shortly after he received his cap, Agnew was taken aback when, in response to a question that asked of Pattinson whether this was a moment he had dreamed of all his life, the new cap simply said, with disarming honesty, ‘no.’

It has been a popular baton to run with since then. Matthew Hoggard was surprised to hear that Pattinson talked with an Aussie twang. I know Hoggy has not been in the England dressing room for a while but has he forgotten how Tim Ambrose talks, or Kevin Pietersen? It didn’t stop Hoggy celebrating every time Geraint Jones took a catch off him. Graham Gooch, in yesterday’s Times, wondered how Pattinson could have played with the requisite passion and pride given that he has not been brought up in England. For Gooch, it is where you are brought up that counts.

In 1989, Gooch was England captain when a punt was taken on a raw fast bowler called Ricardo Ellcock. Ellcock was born in Barbados and attended Combermere Secondary School there, before winning a scholarship to Malvern College at fifteen. He was picked for the 1989 tour of the Caribbean but the story had an unhappy ending. Well, cricket-wise it did, in that Ellcock suffered horrendous back problems and rarely played thereafter. He became the first black captain on Virgin Atlantic airways, so things worked out just fine. But he was raw and rapid back then, and Gooch obviously thought it was a risk worth taking regardless of where he was brought up.

And surely this is the point about the Pattinson selection, that it made no sense cricket-wise. Plucking someone from obscurity after just handful of games is usually a sign of special talent, the kind of talent gifted to the few, whether that is the gift of raw pace or mystery spin. Pattinson looked a worthy seamer, ironically in a classical English way, but he was neither young and on the start of a potentially great journey, nor experienced enough to justify the kind of upheaval it caused.  If there are not other more suitable candidates of a younger age who can do that job, then all the anger would be better directed at the 18 first-class counties.

That the award and acceptance of an England cap should provoke such outrage is a welcome thing in a cricketing age increasingly dominated by dollars not dreams. The idea of what it means to play for England matters. Thankfully, we haven’t yet been affected by the faux mawkishness and sentimentality associated with the ‘baggy green’ but the idea of the England cap is still important. And for most, it didn’t sit well on Pattinson’s head.

The criticism of Pattinson was at its fiercest before the match and before most people had seen him bowl in the flesh. Understandably he looked nervy at first- wouldn’t you be with the Western Terrace bellowing ‘who are ya?’ as you marked out your run?- but after that I thought he bowled well, at least as well as England’s other bowlers. With his strong, repeatable action he did not look out of place and if he was trying any less hard than the others, well it wasn’t apparent to me. But for most this was irrelevant. Because he had not spent his formative years drinking warm beer in a village pub, somehow he wasn’t as worthy.

The idea that background rather than personal and professional pride is at the heart of performance is an old argument and one that has been levelled down the years at any number of supposedly ‘non-English’ players. In its most extreme form, the question of national pride, performance and being ‘unequivocal Englishmen’ was asked by Robert Henderson years ago in article in Wisden titled ‘Is it in the blood?’ Devon Malcolm and Phillip de Freitas sued, successfully.

The idea that an English upbringing makes for greater commitment out in the middle, has never struck me as having one grain of truth in it. It certainly didn’t strike me as particularly relevant when Robin Smith was being carried down the stairs on a stretcher at Old Trafford in 1995, his cheekbone bloodied and smashed to bits by an Ian Bishop bouncer. England were subsiding at the time; from memory we were six down chasing a smallish target, and Smith refused to be taken to hospital until it was clear that victory had been won and that he wouldn’t be needed to bat again. That was commitment of the deepest, most desperate kind.

It is true that there have been some, whose right to play for England has been questioned, who have performed poorly. Remember Martin McCague, born in Ulster, raised in Australia, the ‘rat that joined the sinking ship.’? But McCague was a timid, weak cricketer, rather than someone torn by loyalty, and there have been plenty of blue-blooded Englishmen like that. Remember Mark Lathwell? His idea of sporting nirvana was not opening the batting for England against Australia but playing darts in his local in Devon. What could be more English than that?

The question is not one of upbringing but commitment. If Pattinson stays for a short time with Nottinghamshire, returns to Australia with his England cap, never to be seen again, then his selection will leave a sour taste. But opportunity and choice should never be frowned upon. If he makes a commitment here, he should be welcomed.

On the basis that it is where you are brought up that counts, England have assimilated South Africans (Allan Lamb, Smith, Lamb,) Zimbabweans (Graeme Hick) Australians (Ambrose, the Hollioake brothers, Geraint Jones) and any number of West Indians (Gladstone Small, Ellcock, Roland Butcher) over the last two decades. That is not a roll call of shame, but a list to be proud of.

Cricket-wise, England’s selectors misplaced their marbles momentarily at Headingley last week, but on another level Pattinson’s selection was to be celebrated. Notwithstanding the fact that Pattinson, English born and with an English passport, had every right to play, the day when the lottery of where you are born and where your parents take you can be overridden by a positive choice of where you live, where you work and where you bring up your family must be a good thing. It is one more step towards a more humane, civilised and enlightened world.