Spectator sport

The baby who could transform English cricket

25 August 2018

9:00 AM

25 August 2018

9:00 AM

Alice Cook’s impending third child could turn out to be the perfect delivery for England. Already the expectant father Alastair has asked for a few days off work, thus possibly sparing the England selectors a synapse-crunching headache. At some point before the end of days the problem of what to do with ‘Chef’ has to hit the top of the in-tray.

Cook is England’s highest Test run-scorer by a country mile and blessed with the stamina, courage and application of a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner. But his batting form is beginning to tail off and his catching, once as solid as Fort Knox, is now erratic. Above all, this greatest of England openers should be able to call last orders on his international career when he wants to. And could the arrival of Mrs Cook’s latest be just the job? Take the fourth Test off, Alastair, miss the fifth with nappy-changing duties, then see how things feel.

Cook, of course, has always been a model sportsman. Unlike some. Funny isn’t it, cricketers and rugby players beating people up? Makes a bit of drunken shagging by a footballer in a Premier Inn sound little more than mischievous.

Thankfully those of us fed up with sportsmen beating people up when they shouldn’t can now watch the best in the world getting paid for doing it officially. Yes, the Rugby Championship — the Tri Nations, as it was before Argentina joined — is back. It used to be the finest rugby on offer anywhere, but these days is getting a little processional. Last Saturday, Australia gave New Zealand a few nervous moments but were duly smashed in the second half — helped, it must be said, by referee Jaco Peyper blowing up like an auxiliary Kiwi. All refs listen to the All Blacks far too much and it would be good for the game if the Kiwis shut up occasionally. At least a new-look Springbok team galvanised by the return of Eben Etzebeth could give them something to worry about in Pretoria in October. Here’s hoping…

Watching the Chelsea v Arsenal match on Saturday I could spot one Englishman in the two starting line-ups: Ross Barkley, an England reject. I like our multicultural society as much as anyone, but this is taking things too far, no? It doesn’t chime with the euphoria of England reaching the World Cup semis and our younger national teams doing so well. There seems little will even to try to promote home-grown players. Poor Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who performed so well in Russia, has been hunting for a loan move from Chelsea just to get some game time. Sure, the days of a successful British-owned, British-managed team of largely British players are long gone. But couldn’t we try a bit harder?

Something to learn here from Watford, one of my favourite teams ever since the era of Sir Elton, Graham Taylor and John Barnes. A few years ago, they were debt-ridden, tipped for relegation from the Championship and had an embarrassingly shabby stadium. Now, with the Italian Pozzo family who bought the club in 2012, they are two wins from two in the Premier League, buying and selling players with multimillion price tags, and playing with some style in an impressive town-centre ground.

The business model is interesting too. Rather than marquee managers who arrive with their own staff, cost a packet and change everything, the club uses, and switches, head coaches who are brought in to execute an already well-defined way of working. It brings greater continuity, and means Watford can promote a stable of quality England midfielders like Nathaniel Chalobah, Will Hughes and Tom Cleverley, as well as Troy Deeney and Andre Gray up front.

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