Australian scouting party eye up the Ashes

Stephen Brenkley looks at the men from Down Under who are up for the cup
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Sometime on Tuesday at least one Australian is certain to influence the course of proceedings in England's oldest limited overs competition. It is what overseas players are for and any such match-turning contributions in the NatWest Trophy quarter-finals are likely to be attractive, stimulating and enthusiastically received.

The trouble with this potential scenario is the alarming prospect of a repeat performance next year when, at stake, will not be a mere slice of domestic one-day glory but the Ashes themselves. Five of the six Australians in county cricket will play in Tuesday's matches. Four of them could be back with the touring team next year, three have already found their range on English pitches. Conspiracy theorists might suggest it is nothing more or less than an overt spying mission. Get to know the enemy, sabotage him later.

"It's a point, I suppose," said Peter Edwards, general manager of Essex for whom the Queenslander Stuart Law began with 93 in the cold of early May, has never stopped amassing runs since and now has more than 1100 by way of a deposit to selectors considering who may be a worthwhile investment in this country. "But equally, it's giving English bowlers a good look at him so that we should be able to learn how to get him out," he added, perhaps not entirely convincingly.

Essex have employed Australians before, not least Allan Border. He executed perhaps the most successful recce in Test history in 1988, scoring 1361 Championship runs for the county to fulfil his part of the bargain while also accumulating vast knowledge of England and their players. Border returned as Australia's captain the next year, regained the Ashes with a 4-0 series win and England haven't seen the desirable little urn since.

Les Stillman, the Australian coach of Derbyshire who came over here as part of a package with fellow Victorian Dean Jones as county captain, had a different interpretation from Edwards. "It's crazy that they're allowed to do it," he said. "They're all getting used to the way English pitches play and probably adapting their game accordingly. It's a great way to learn and I know counties have a responsibility to their members but I can tell you it wouldn't happen in Australia."

Law and Jones apart, the rest of the Australian quintet competing for a place in the NatWest semi-finals comprises Michael Bevan of Yorkshire, Shane Lee of Somerset and Brendon Julian of Surrey. (Tom Moody of Worcestershire, eliminated in the last round, is the odd Aussie out). Bevan, with 1200 first-class runs, has made them in such an easy, dominant fashion as to make Law look like a man struggling for form. Lee is second in the national batting averages. Only the left-arm swing bowler Julian has failed thus far to make a significant statistical impression.

According to Stillman, both Bevan and Law will certainly tour here next year having been selected for the imminent Australian mini-tour of Sri Lanka.

"They were in the frame, what they've done here this summer has just put them to the top of it," he said. "Lee has done very well at the right time. He hasn't taken many wickets but he's the sort of player who'll do one thing or the other well, not both at the same time. This could easily prove to have been a crucial trip. Julian hasn't been great shakes but this season was probably a bonus for him. He'd fallen out of the selectors' minds and even if he didn't think coming over here for a summer was a way of getting back he can hardly have expected the chance."

The only all-Australian confrontation in Tuesday's matches pits Julian against Lee, with Surrey and Somerset playing each other at The Oval. Stillman, Jones and Derbyshire go to Old Trafford where Lancashire's South African all-rounder Steve Elworthy is not guaranteed a place. The cultured left-hander Bevan takes his awesome form to Sussex, Law will return to Southampton where he has already taken a first-class century off Hampshire this season.

Julian's English team-mates will probably prove potent enough to see off Lee. Elsewhere, expect the sides with Aussies to edge home, though it may be worthwhile offering a little prayer that it is not merely one more dress rehearsal for next summer.