Cricket: Alarm bells in the engine room

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Ever been confronted with the classic carpentry challenge, the wobbly chair? Amateur carpenters seek stabilisation by alternately sawing off degrees of the chair's legs, hoping that the ensuing cut will be the one that stops it rocking.

Remind you of anyone? All those armchair selectors rising up the length and breadth of England, perhaps? How else could we explain the outbreak of hysteria, the screeched demands for Mike Atherton to be knee-capped, ahead of a selection bloodbath following the loss of the Ashes.

OK, so it has been five times in a row, but it should be pointed out to those who would see such hard times as the cricketing version of Armageddon, that Australia failed to lay a batting glove on the Frank Worrell Trophy for 20 years before this team of Mark Taylor's won it back in the Caribbean in 1995.

Now that's what I call hard times. We didn't axe a captain, although Kim Hughes did resign in mid-series in 1984, a move that probably saved the Australian Cricket Board running a finger along the blade because Hughes's captaincy had turned out to be as impetuous as his batting.

The end of Hughes saw the beginning of Allan Border's long and, some would say, glorious reign. Yet, until he won the Ashes back, in 1989, Border came under just as much critical pressure as has Atherton, and for the same reason - his teams struggled to win consistently.

Australia's experience shows this is not the time for England to be blooding yet another new captain. The tour to the West Indies is tough enough without loading your saddlebags with the lead of inexperience. With respect, it was not the captain who stopped England getting closer in this Ashes contest.

Oh, he probably made some tactical errors, but which captain doesn't? The difference is that other tactically errant captains - and there are any number of armchair critics even prepared occasionally to name Taylor as one of those - have the players on their team who can get them out of trouble.

Or, to get my point into a more useful perspective, players who can get the team into a winning position. England should forever rue letting slip two moments of opportunity in this series, the outcomes of which clearly defined the differences between a team of winners and a team of losers.

First, Steve Waugh, out second ball on the second-last morning at Trent Bridge. England's must-win Test was suddenly in tantalising reach. Can you imagine, if the roles had been reversed, Glenn McGrath, Paul Reiffel or Shane Warne allowing England's Nos 6 and 7 batsmen to do what Ian Healy and Ricky Ponting did to Andy Caddick and co?

Then there was Graham Thorpe dropping Matthew Elliott at Headingley. Suddenly there was a chance Australia might make less than 100. Can you imagine Mark Taylor or Mark Waugh dropping that? Healy might even have palmed them out of the way and caught it in his free glove, he's so good and he's that confident. It wasn't always so.

But that's why this Australian cricket team is great - every individual's talent has grown with the tough territory that is Test-match cricket. In some cases it's still growing - Ricky Ponting, Matthew Elliott, Jason Gillespie, Greg Blewett. None of it could have happened without a sensible, mostly stable selection philosophy, although the hard markers would say Taylor's men "did it despite the selectors".

Taylor is entitled to rate his team with any of the best Australian teams of the recent past. The captain is a smart man-manager, uncomplicated, never fazed and has confidence in his engine room, which is Steve Waugh, McGrath, Warne and Healy.

Ian Chappell's team success was based around his brother Greg, Doug Walters, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh. Richie Benaud had Neil Harvey, Alan Davidson, Norm O'Neill and Wally Grout. Generally, a few individuals are the catalyst for success, and their roles within the team often reflect a similar balance - tough batsmen, aggressive bowlers, and a perky wicketkeeper. And, they perform consistently under pressure.

Ray Illingworth had Geoff Boycott, John Edrich, John Snow, Alan Knott and Derek Underwood. Those who advocated the death penalty for Atherton might have been wiser to have asked themselves one question: if that is indeed the recipe for success, how many ingredients did Atherton have at his disposal in this Ashes series?

One: Darren Gough - perhaps. But Gough needs consistent support and neither Caddick nor Devon Malcolm, and certainly not Robert Croft, provided it. Dean Headley looks to be made of the right stuff - do you think Headley and Gough has a ring about it, like Trueman and Statham? You wish.

And where were the batsmen who, as they walked on, filled watchers with the comfort that Steve Waugh can? The form of England's engine room - Thorpe, Nasser Hussain and John Crawley - was too ragged, and the captain himself was in the form doldrums.

And not for a moment could anyone venture that Alec Stewart is in the mould of Knott. So it will not matter how many times England change their captain; if the key players cannot cope with their basic roles when the pressure goes on, then no matter how solid is any captain's game plan, the inevitable result will be another wobble, another defeat.

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