07 Sep 2006
By: Matt Pitt
Yesterday, it was announced that England opener Marcus Trescothick had withdrawn himself from contention for selection in England's ICC Champions' Trophy squad, due to the same "stress-related gastro-intestinal infection" that resulted in his return from the tour of India in February. Trescothick is unlikely to play any part in the final two ODIs against Pakistan, and some are placing his participation in this winter's Ashes series in doubt. There can be no doubt that, despite Trescothick enduring statistically his worst year as a Test cricketer, his potential absence would be a hammer blow to England's hopes.
It is a well-known fact that Trescothick has never scored a Test hundred against Australia, despite playing fifteen Ashes Tests in his career. However, his batting average in the epic 2005 series was 43.10, he was England's second-highest run-scorer in the series, and he scored 90 of England's 407 runs on the opening day of the memorable Edgbaston Test. He has always been a batsman for whom statistics have spoken louder than the man himself ever could. He has never been one to stir the pot before a big series with a well-timed boast in the media; he has never been one to be seen celebrating a victory with anything other than a quiet beer or two; he has never had the slightest interest in self-promotion. In short, he has never been Kevin Pietersen.
What he has been for the last six years, however, is the cornerstone of England's increasingly more successful Test batting lineup. His Test batting average currently stands at 43.79, higher than the more celebrated likes of Sanath Jayasuriya, VVS Laxman, Stephen Fleming and Chris Gayle. He has 5,825 Test runs, has played seventy-six Test matches and captained his country in two of them. Yet, somehow, when it was announced that he would return home from India, no-one batted an eyelid. When it was announced that he would miss the Champions' Trophy, the reaction was mass indifference. But when the likes of Michael Vaughan, Simon Jones, Ashley Giles and Andrew Flintoff were declared unavailable through injury, it seemed to send shockwaves through everyone involved with English cricket.
So what separates Trescothick from the other key members of the England side? What is it that makes fans, pundits and fellow players alike assume that he is easily replaceable? Perhaps it is the fact that it is often the done thing these days to look beyond statistics, to look at a player's all-round capabilities, to put their strengths and weaknesses under the microscope. However, this makes it all the more remarkable that Trescothick's absence is met with such disinterest.
Look beyond statistics, and you find a batsman whose commitment to the cause and determination to improve is second to none. Look at his all-round capabilities and you find one of the world's best slip fielders, a dependable and cool-headed captain, and in his younger days, a capable wicketkeeper and medium-pace bowler. Put his strengths and weaknesses under the microscope and you find a batsman who, whilst his technique may not be worth an inclusion in a coaching manual, has found a method that works and remained resolutely committed to it, whilst also showing a ceaseless desire to improve.
Trescothick's presence at the top of the order has been a calming, reassuring one ever since he announced his arrival as a Test player - with fighting innings of 122 and 57, in an innings defeat against Sri Lanka at Galle in only his seventh Test. The feeling has existed ever since, that as long as England have Trescothick at the top of the order, they will not be short of a solid start. His long-standing opening partnership with Michael Vaughan was the foundation on which England's recent development was built; when Vaughan was replaced as opener by Andrew Strauss, England's most successful opening partnership of recent times was born. Trescothick has been the glue holding together the old England - the England which Mike Atherton left behind on retiring in 2001 - and the new England, the one which regained the Ashes last year in such scintillating and dramatic fashion.
Since then, however, England have suffered a spate of injuries, forcing several key players out of action at important times. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the Ashes-winning side will never play together again, and increasingly doubtful that captain Michael Vaughan will ever play cricket again. With Vaughan out of the side, Trescothick is the senior batsman, and until his withdrawal from the tour to India, was the stand-in captain to go with it. He scored an imperious 193 against Pakistan at Multan in only his second Test as skipper, and looked for all the world like a man to whom leading by example was the most natural thing in the world.
His departure from the tour to India, citing first "personal reasons", and later a "virus", raised a few eyebrows - but the general feeling was that having played almost six years of non-stop international cricket, in both Tests and ODIs, the man was entitled to a break if it meant that he was fully re-energised by the time the Ashes came around nine months later. He returned to the side with a century at Lord's against Sri Lanka, and all was forgotten - or so it seemed. Since then, however, his performances have been sketchy at best - barring a century in a losing effort against Sri Lanka in the final ODI, he has been largely below-par. He averaged below twenty in the recent Test series against Pakistan, and all of a sudden, questions were being asked once more about his mental state.
Then, yesterday, the news broke that he would not be available for the Champions' Trophy tournament, starting in October. Was it because of the "personal reasons" stated earlier in the year? Or the "virus"? Well, as it turned out, it was both. The "virus" was supposedly stress-induced - a gastro-intestinal problem brought on by prolonged and repeated instances of nervousness, rumour had it. Rest was the only cure, and as such, Trescothick opted out of the Champions' Trophy on doctor's orders.
The "stress-related" nature of the illness, however, has prompted allegations that Trescothick is "picking and choosing" which games he plays for England, and accusations that he simply isn't too fond of touring any more. At first, I personally was equally sceptical about his reasons for declaring himself unavailable. An international sportsman suffering from stress issues surely is in no fit state to be playing for his country, I thought, and Trescothick's participation in the Ashes should be in serious doubt; England couldn't throw him into a vital series like that with doubts over what was on his mind as he walked out to bat, could they? Could Trescothick ever play for England again if this was the effect it had on him?
Since yesterday, however, the answer to that question has dawned on me. Regardless of whether or not Trescothick has the ability to overcome his demons and walk onto the field for the first Test free from distractions, regardless of whether or not his nerves will have calmed themselves sufficiently for him to take the correct guard to face the first ball - he simply must play.
The England side that steps out at Brisbane for that first Ashes Test will be a new England, an England captained by either Andrew Strauss or Andrew Flintoff, an England without several members of the side that gave them the crucial psychological edge over Australia that they now hold. Without Trescothick stepping out to face the first ball from Glenn McGrath, without his booming pull shots and thumping cover drives, without his sense of quiet resolve, this England side will be stepping into unknown territory.
For as long as Trescothick and Strauss are stepping out together to open the innings for England, there will always be one unmistakeable similarity to that triumphant summer of 2005. All it will take is one thumping straight six from the former, or one flashing square cut from the latter, and the minds of Shane Warne and Brett Lee will immediately be transported back from Brisbane to Birmingham, or from Melbourne to Manchester, and the scars that were carved into Australian hearts last summer will be ripped open once more. There has always been more to cricket than just a matter of picking the guy with the best numbers, or picking on a matter of principle. Occasionally it is necessary to take a leap of faith, and trust that history will repeat itself.
England took a leap of faith when picking Kevin Pietersen for last year's series, and it paid off in spades. If they are to triumph in this year's Ashes, they must recapture the essence of their previous triumph - without Trescothick, that would be an impossible task. If Andrew Strauss or Andrew Flintoff are going to captain a side including as few as six members of last year's side, it is imperative that Trescothick is one of them. An England Test side without him at the top of the scorecard just doesn't look right. Sometimes statistics do tell the whole story - he is the only man to score his first 5,000 Test runs in less than six years.
Still have doubts about his mental state? Perhaps his phyiscal fitness, or his current form? That's three reasons to leave him out. There are 5,825 reasons not to.