The England players are locked away in luxury and, as Ashley Giles has pointed out, it’s going to be tough for them – “no holiday camp”, he said – especially since the rest of the country now has permission for some mild gallivanting.
Soon a large Test squad of around 20 players will be announced for the West Indies series, so who among them will have the toughest assignment? The obvious answer with three back-to-back Tests is the pacemen, though, as ever, we have been promised plenty of rotation, a strategy that has been talked about far more frequently than employed (Stuart Broad has not missed a home Test since 2012, when he was rested against West Indies). However, that may not be the correct answer. For numbers 18, 19 and 20 in the squad, the players who are unlikely to participate in the series at all barring significant injuries/ill-health, the experience could be tougher still.
For them, a luxurious lockdown will be hard to bear. The players in the team will have a purpose; they will be consumed by the cricketing challenge once the series begins. Time will fly by. But for those permanently outside the XI there is a nasty vacuum; the challenge is no longer a cricketing one, their goal is to remain cheerful and supportive in the knowledge their prime skills have become peripheral. The days will drag, the greatest excitement stemming from popping on to the ground as a replacement fielder while Jimmy Anderson has a rubdown. Groundhog day.
Being one of the 12th men on a regular basis is not much fun. I became all too accustomed to the role on tour with England. It was an enormous privilege to be there and over three consecutive winters I experienced 16 Tests but only four of them as a player. Beyond the basic backroom chores, which might include the preparation of not-so-delicious lunchtime toasted sandwiches in the remoter parts of India as well as rushing out on to the field with drinks, gloves and messages, there would occasionally be more unusual tasks. At Delhi, in 1984, the dressing rooms were so far from the middle the next batsman had to wait in a special section of the stand near the boundary to avoid an unacceptable delay when a wicket fell. I was sent down there with the instruction: “Go and talk to Gatt,” who was next in.
Just occasionally the 12th man shoots to glory. Gary Pratt swooped from cover to run out Ricky Ponting at Trent Bridge in 2005, undoubtedly a decisive moment in the series. He became a household name; he probably still is – among the Pontings. But generally 12th men are doomed to the anonymity of a dogsbody. Now they must even wear a bib on the boundary edge, which only seems to highlight their junior status. At least they will be well-remunerated for their efforts at the Rose Bowl and they will be assisted by some of the support staff, neither of which was the case when I first learned the ropes as a 12th man, when a young pro at Somerset.
There was no rest. You were obliged to bowl in the nets around 9.30am to any batsman who wanted to restore his confidence. Then the captain, Brian Close, needed a piping hot pot of tea before the start of play and at every interval – he seemed to survive on tea plus 20 (or more) Benson & Hedges throughout every day of his long professional career. He might also need someone to pop down to the bookies to back a surefire winner on his behalf. With my sheltered background I wasn’t very good at this so I may have saved him a bit of money.
Lunches had to be delivered to the dressing room (sometimes from the fish and chip shop down the road when the prospect of another sweaty salad was rejected). Every dismissed batsman would expect a cold drink at his side upon return to the dressing room, a ritual rather than a necessity, which could be a tricky operation. How to break the uncomfortable silence that accompanies an early departure from the crease? “Bad luck” was somehow not so appropriate after the batsman, who was probably keeping you out of the team, had advanced down the pitch and swung wildly before hearing the death rattle.
Orders also had to be taken for the players’ post-match drinks, which would consist mostly of pints of beer or lager, which would be precariously balanced on a flimsy tray five minutes before the end of play just as the corridors were packed with spectators leaving the ground or merrily pursuing their final drink of the day. Then there was the necessity of running the communal bath early enough to ensure the hot water had not been snaffled by the away dressing room but late enough that it was still sufficiently hot to satisfy our brave warriors returning from the middle.
So you may begin to understand why this is a job for a fledgling county pro rather than a senior player suffering the rare indignity of being left out of the team. Phil Edmonds was omitted from the Middlesex side in 1985 – at the age of 34 – so they could play four seamers at Leicester two days after he had helped England win the Ashes at the Oval. “I think they must be mad,” he said.
The prospect of fulfilling the duties of the 12th man did not appeal greatly to Edmonds and it is unlikely he would have done a very good job. Servility did not come naturally to him. “What benefit is there to anyone, Middlesex or me, to stay here in that capacity?” he said. Middlesex won the game by 10 wickets and proceeded to win the Championship. He immediately drove back to London.
England will not have a better spinner than Edmonds in Southampton but they will have many better 12th men.