Cricket: Australia capitalise on the inexplicable

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The Independent Online
Perhaps, on the brink of 2000, it is time to take the plunge and revise the way in which the Ashes are held. Australia have held them since 1989 and in that time England's more hangdog than bulldog performance has inspired calls for three-Test series.

Realistically, that would relegate the world war of our sport to minor skirmish proportions and would be a serious miscalculation of the Test's retained popularity. After all, on the first day of this Test they did hang out the full-house sign.

Still, the fact remains that this Ashes contest was decided weeks ago. We've known since Adelaide that England couldn't win back the Ashes which was a tad deflating and the catalyst for new demands from the blood-thirsty media for abbreviated Ashes contests.

It's all our own fault, we traditionalists. We continue to bend our knee to history and promote the urn as "it" - as if it is one of those treasures any gung-ho celluloid hero finds at the end of a booby-trapped trail in remote, steamy jungles. We have committed the outcome of the series to an afterthought.

The result of the series should be the crux. If the teams are all square at the end of five Tests why shouldn't the Ashes be shared? If England make it back-to-back wins at the SCG what a sight it would be to see Mark Taylor and Alec Stewart, each with an arm raised, each with a hand on the famous trophy.

In other words, if the team holding the Ashes do not win the series outright then they lose the right to "hold" the Ashes. This could add some spice to the next contest when both teams start from square one. Also, the idea of sharing the spoils bids farewell to the old-fashioned theory that a draw is as good as a win.

Of course, it will also lead to sharp discussion about the merits of each team's performance, whether one team really were the equal of the other or did luck ride shotgun over lustre? In any examination of the present England Ashes challenge, Stewart's men can hardly expect generous marking.

They really have no right to be playing for a squared series: they would be facing a whitewash but for that washaway at the Gabba and the un-Australian batting bungle at Melbourne, correctly diagnosed by Taylor as complacency.

Theories on why England's challenge faltered will be many, but I think the basic problems were never more clearly exposed than on the first day of this Fifth Test: again, there was confusion over selection direction and again schoolboy blunders in the field cost a fortune in runs.

First, selection: Alex Tudor, the promising, if softish, fast bowler whom they had dropped for Adelaide after he had made a most impressive debut in Perth, was chosen ahead of a second spinner and even ahead of Alan Mullally. What on earth can the tour selectors have been thinking of?

This was the SCG and it has turned square all summer, and left-arm quicks have done well, too. Was not the left-hander Mullally originally chosen because, as well as providing a different angle and being economical, his footmarks might assist the off-spinners?

We can only assume Mullally wasn't left out because his footmarks might assist the off-spin of Miller, one of three spinners chosen by Australia.

Anyone keen to justify England's snubbing before play of the left-arm spinner Ashley Giles should be asked to explain, in minute detail, the captain's faith in Mark Ramprakash ahead of bigger bowling reputations during the course of the day.

Now the fielding, which apart from the odd remarkable reflex catch, has been more a case of count the regular glitches. England soon had Taylor, Michael Slater and Justin Langer out but just when they needed to separate the Waugh twins, Stewart, the No 1 wicketkeeper in the original selection, produced a lollipop throw as a midwicket fielder when a regulation throw would have run out Mark.

It was only bad luck that when Waugh got the single to reach his century, it was Stewart who obligingly misfielded. Poor Stewart. Or was the plan to stick with him as a keeper/middle-order batsman to the bitter end in Adelaide poor judgement?

England's plan to win the Ashes was a worthy one: play five bowlers. It's every selector's dream to choose a combination as powerful as that. To achieve it there is only one route - play an all-rounder in the top six. In greater days for England, the all-rounder was Botham. But he was a bowler and, while a freak and a champion and a rogue, never ever forget he was a match-turning bowler.

As a former Australian selector, I enjoyed stirring my fellow judges by advocating that Ian Healy should bat at No 6 and allow us another bowling option. A gamble, they agreed, and, to those who would maintain that England's Stewart-all-rounder option wasn't a gamble let me point out that the "five bowlers plan" lasted just one Test, the first.

The tour selectors got nervous. In Perth, Graeme Hick, statistically one of the greatest batsmen the world has seen, batted at No 7 and before the Adelaide Test, which England had to win. Gooch was still waffling about playing seven batsmen. Even juniors have seen the documentary evidence that bowlers win matches.

England's generals longed for an encore of 1970-71, hoping that Darren Gough would be a clone of John Snow and that Croft would be Illingworth, but Croft's bowling style, once promising, lacks the line and patience to create pressure. And, if he has the mischievous personality of the deceiver, where is it in his bowling?

Peter Such's arm action allows him to dabble in more subtle flight - the dismissal of Steve Waugh on 96 - and Gough was as worthy of any hat- trick, which might have come earlier but for his dozy fielders.

Graham Thorpe's early departure removed a genuine threat to Australia's chances of retaining the Ashes without Warne. The aggressive left-hander would most likely have dealt severely with the rookie MacGill, simply because he has handled the great Warne usefully in the past. As sad as that was Atherton's demise.

Atherton was "Gatting-ed" in the second innings at Melbourne by Fleming's superb leg-cutter which pitched middle and bit the top of off, rekindling memories of Warne at Headingley in 1993, but his brittle back, his confidence and most notably his footwork were all shot long before that, and any team without a solid opening are sure to falter.

England, and any touring side these days, are not helped by the poor excuse for an itinerary; once upon a time touring Test teams played tough lead-up matches against the states and developed a feel for conditions and selectors noted which players might develop a combination. State players valued this experience against international opponents as a chance to push for higher honours.

This time Victoria's best players pulled out of the tour match - "niggling injuries", which as we all know are the worst kind next to a broken leg - and that relegated the contest to "who cares?" status, exactly the sort of third-rate affair which Australian teams touring England have been complaining about since 1989.

England's batsmen showed a propensity to dabble around off stump, rather than let balls go. That is simply more damning evidence of the one-day game's incursion into the main game. England's open bat technique, where batsmen run the ball to third man, is fine on slow pitches, but flawed on fast, bouncy ones and in the Australian slips cordon Taylor, Waugh and Ponting accepted any catching practice.

All Australians enjoyed the spirited work of Hussain, Ramprakash, Gough and Headley. Hick has yet to convince us that his career statistics match his potential, at least at Test level, because McGrath seems to have the same effect on his faltering back-foot movement as Merv Hughes did. To be fair to Hick, we should acknowledge the status of both as champion fast bowlers - and nasty.

Taylor can find no place in his combined Ashes team for a single Englishman. I'd like to nominate three in my side, which is: Taylor (c), Slater, Hussain, M Waugh, S Waugh, Healy, Gough, Fleming, MacGill, McGrath, Such.