Cricket: A series of theories and the spinner's doctor

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The Independent Online
Another Ashes series is about to be fought and there are theories galore about the probable outcome. The simplest is this: Australia hanging on to the urn in their own backyard is an easier exercise than England trying to win it back in enemy territory.

History supports that idea - England have done it only four times, 1903, 1911, 1932, 1970, but Australia have done it even less, three times.

Therefore, it is to state the bleedin' obvious that for Alec Stewart's men to become the fifth they have to win one more Test match than Mark Taylor's Australians. Only one. That prompts another theory, the one about it being bowlers who win matches.

Rather simplistic yes, but the most recent confirmation of its truth was played out in Peshawar, Pakistan, where Mark Taylor's Bradmanesque 334 not out and his unselfish declaration offered his team a winning chance for only as long as it took Pakistan's batsmen to extend the long handle to some indifferent Australian bowling.

Any discussion as to why Australia failed to bowl out Pakistan twice in three days needs to consider the make-up of the bowling attack - Glenn McGrath, Damien Fleming, Stuart MacGill and Colin Miller - and the state of the pitch, benign. Top billing on the Australian dressing-room wish list was shared, landmines in lieu of six-stitch cricket balls, please and, SOS - Send Over Shane (Warne, who else?).

Those same two factors, bowling balance and pitch conditions, might be the key to the winning of Ashes 1998 and they raise another theory so popular it became a cliche - "horses for courses".

Cricket common sense says this series will turn not so much on whether Australia's rather wobbly attack can dismiss England, whose batting line- up looks quite solid - even more so if Warne is missing - but whether England's selectors have opted for enough variation to dismiss Australia twice in a Test.

There is no mystery about Australia's wall of batsmen: the technical nervous nellies are still worried about Michael Slater's enthusiasm and Mark Waugh's lack of it, and only the illogical deny that Steve Waugh is the world's No 1; Darren Lehmann and Justin Langer, two more left- handers to go with Taylor, seem to be settling; but off-stage there are Greg Blewett, Matt Elliott, Ricky Ponting, Stuart Law, Damien Martyn and Matthew Hayden.

Perhaps some of those names offer us a clue as to why England have brought two off-spinners Down Under when the best judges always say that a team should opt for bowlers who can take the ball away from the batsman - there are a lot of left- handers batting for Australia at the moment.

Or, are England's selectors intent on reviving the theory that Australians can't play off-spin, a now passe legacy of the Laker era and stumbles on the sub-continent when Prasanna was tweaking his magic? Neither Robert Croft nor Peter Such seem that well equipped.

Pitch conditions might play a bigger role in the outcome than many think possible; this series is unusual because it has two back-to- back contests, in the beginning in Brisbane and Perth and, at the end, in Melbourne and Sydney.

The reason for that is not underhand but, because Shane Warne might only be available for the last two Tests, it raises that most fascinating of all theories, the conspiracy theory.

The fact is the Australian Cricket Board squeezed the programme because an extensive, expensive off-season survey recommended interest in the summer (dollars through the gate) could best be maintained by isolating Tests from limited-overs cricket.

The resultant programme changes mean the first two Tests will be played on the pacy Gabba and WACA and the last two - could one be the decider? - will be played on the spin-friendly MCG and SCG pitches.

It is a circumstance that when linked to the balance of England's attack - all pace with a dash of spin, but mainly to confine - surely adds weight to Graham Gooch's pre-tour theory that England would be wise to "stamp their authority on the series early". To achieve less might usher in an unhappy 1999 at the SCG's traditional January Test.

The news on Warne's recovery is, as ever, masked by careful public relations; a film clip of him rolling his arm over indoors, even a plea to be allowed to play for his state as batsman.

Rumour says that he has been extra busy attending to promotional commitments but having physio every second day and bowling at half pace on a three- quarter-length pitch, mostly with a tennis ball.

The most compelling version of his recovery rate remains that offered by a selector: "The bottom line is this... when he comes back we want him to play for the next five years, not five minutes." He said it without a smile.

This is only a theory, and it might be of some comfort to England: I doubt that Australia will allow Warne to risk himself until he is 100 per cent right again. Even if England are one up with two Tests to play...