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New England, new hope

By Scyld Berry

Tuesday 13 May 1997

ENGLAND have come to reserve their best efforts for West Indies, and their worst for Australia. The recent record has been 14 wins to Australia, and two to England, over the last four Ashes series. Merv Hughes has shouted, England have quailed.

In the field and at the crease the Australians have strutted as masters, England as submissive servants. An Ashes series used to be worth watching, like television, but not of late.

This one-sidedness must not go on, for the sake of England and of the Ashes, and of world cricket, which has enjoyed its laugh at our expense but needs England to be a serious player once again. The master-servant relationship has to end. During the last series in Australia the story came back of an England batsman agreeing with Mark Taylor's men to expose his tail-end partner in return for a single.

To arrest this trend England must not start this coming series cold, as they have been doing, or knackered, as they always are when they go to Australia, thanks to our administrators, who send them there after nine months solid at home and in the West Indies. A mark of Taylor's captaincy is that his team start hot: in all of their last six series Australia have won the first two Tests, except for one rain affected draw.

The tourists have their weaknesses, but overall they are a big-game team. They lose more often than they did when Allan Border and David Boon with coach Bobby Simpson added their steel to the backbone, but most of their losses have come in dead series, when results have little significance.

Over the next four weeks therefore, the aim of English cricket has to be to stop the Australians starting hot at Edgbaston on June 5; to target Taylor; and to summon up the hunger and toughness which Mark Waugh has accused England of lacking, and which England have lacked, save on odd occasions like the second half of the Christchurch Test. To this end, happily, Australia's administrators have been co-operative, because they have alloted the minimum of preparation to their players: everything will have to go in their favour, including the weather, if they are not to be undercooked by the first Test. And if one certainty exists in cricket, it is that the game delights in giving that sort of arrogance its comeuppance.

Last winter the cricket correspondent of The Age in Melbourne remarked drolly that Australia's future programme consisted of Tests against West Indies and South Africa followed by ``a series of exhibition matches in England''. In all seriousness the Australian Board seem to share in this presumption: they reckon four one-day games will be sufficient before the Texaco Trophy, though three of the tourists' five pace bowlers have not played first-class cricket in England before; and just two three-day games before the first Test.

During this build-up the Australians, and especially Taylor, have to be denied the easy runs they were offered in 1993, when the counties were bent on filling their marquees with 'suits' who wanted to watch Australian batsmen flogging hundreds on flat pitches against second-string bowling. David Graveney, campaign co-ordinator, now that he is chairman of selectors, will be whispering in the counties' ear to urge them to stick it up the Aussies, and even to achieve a county victory which would restore a lot of self respect to the English game. Whether the counties listen we will have to see.

The Australians' two first-class matches will be at Bristol and Derby, where grass has been known to grow. The touring batsmen are worth a million dollars on flat, dry pitches, having seen little else in their upbringing. But when the ball moves sideways they become ordinary, including Steve Waugh, rated the world's No 1; and then, without that old steel, they lose as many low-scoring Tests as they win. Here lies their one major weakness.

India were not squeamish about making turning pitches last autumn for the Australians, when again their administrators allowed them little preparation, and they did not win a single game on their brief tour. Is it ethical for England to produce seaming pitches? The rule has been to refuse, piously, to make use of home advantage - except when it has really mattered, when the Ashes have been at stake, and then to go the whole hog, as at Old Trafford in 1956 or Headingley in 1972. Whether a little assistance can be rendered is another matter as our groundsmen have often done the opposite of what they were asked, as with Andy Atkinson providing a turning surface at Edgbaston in 1993.

It was during their world domination in the 1980s that the West Indian fast bowlers worked on the idea of lopping the head off to make the body wither. This summer England have a chance of doing the same to Taylor, who is undergoing the longest run without a Test 50 of any Australian batsman, a trot of 20 innings (Vic Richardson and John Dyson went 18 without). He used to be known as a lucky batsman, who would inside-edge past his stumps. Now footwork and technique have deserted him as well. His movement in his left side is restricted, his shots are less straight, his cross bat chops on.

One course is for England to blow Taylor away so that Australia have to appoint only their third Test captain since 1984. Steve Waugh will slip readily into the captaincy - but at some point he is liable to aggravate the groin injury which seldom lets him bowl (in his last eight Tests he has taken three wickets). Steve misses one Test in six on recent average, so Australia might have to call on a third captain, who would be Ian Healy, a combustible leader.

Or else England could try to keep Taylor in the team by allowing him runs when they matter little. The effect on his team would then be corrosive. The word is that the Australian players are losing their respect for Taylor as he loses his own form. It is a dog-eat-dog world, in which one that is consistently lame cannot be allowed to survive, however fine a pack leader he was.

Taylor's brilliance at man-management was best exemplified when he took his match winner Shane Warne, when he was on the verge of becoming an alone and exposed superstar, and made him feel one of 11. The rein has become a little too tight for the fun-loving Warne; but it is a fact that he has blown his fuses when someone other than Taylor has been his captain. And if Australia should start badly, the pressures on Warne would mount. He has not taken a five-wicket Test haul since November 1995, one month longer than Taylor last scored a Test 50. He has become a great stock bowler rather than the match winner he was when his right shoulder and fingers could rip the ball as no-one had seen before. Warne can foresee himself being overtaken by Michael Bevan and by wear and tear. During a speech in Melbourne last week, he anticipated that this tour of England, though he is only 27, could be his last. Whereas Mushtaq's repertoire expands, Warne's contracts, hence the need for the propaganda about ``mystery balls''. Against England's top order he no longer has novelty value, except against Nick Knight who might not last in the side anyway. It is even conceivable that John Crawley could dominate Warne, as he was never troubled by him in 1994/5 and can play that almost impossible shot, driving the leg break through mid-wicket.

It is not mindless optimism, as Hugh Laurie would say, to imagine that England can win at Edgbaston, where the ball should swing and seam more than anywhere else and at least hold on at Lord's where they have not beaten Australia since 1934; and that Taylor will have to resign in mid series, taking his guidance of Warne with him, or else stay while his team's motivation to play for him wanes. The Australians are superior in flat-track batting, and in fielding (especially if Knight drops out), in wrist spin, and in their opening bowling pair of Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie. But England can, and should, start well for once.

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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 15:36