Cricket: Australia innovate as their old adversary disintegrates

After another Ashes defeat, England's commitment to sport is now being doubted.
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"MAYBE WE should can it now," says the Sydney Morning Herald, its cricket writers deprived - again - of the opportunity to report on a meaningful Ashes Test on their home ground. "Let our blokes hit the beaches, let their blokes go home for Chrissy." Until England can field a radically improved side, "the Ashes should be reduced to three Tests, so at least there could only be one dead match, maximum".

It is an extreme view, but many a media head here has been shaken sadly at the reduced state of their old adversary. Not all of it sentimental, of course - Channel Nine doing its utmost to sell the Ashes as the summer's top sporting spectacle, has strained the ingenuity of its promotions department as the remaining prospect of a genuine contest fizzled out.

For the Perth Test, the on-air trail featured a row of Barmy Army foot- soldiers, complete with Union Jack boxer shorts, cheering on their team only to be silenced as a row of Aussies inserted a cricket ball in each rashly opened mouth. By the build-up to Adelaide, however, the draw card of competition had given way to spectacle - this was bound to be the scene of "some great batting," the voice-over promised, after the "fast bowler's wicket" of the WACA.

Unlike the last Ashes series here, Australia has seen enough to be convinced of the English players' commitment. "The Poms are trying," The Australian said. "They train with effort and enthusiasm." It is England's cricketing commitment that is in doubt. "Something serious must be done or soccer will squeeze it into a curious but largely irrelevant sideshow," the paper warned.

A lack of commitment to sport is not a charge anyone could level at Australia. Just as Alec Stewart was musing in Adelaide on the relative improvement of the rest of the cricketing world, so local researchers were releasing the findings of a study measuring just how far that commitment goes. The University of South Australia reckon taxpayers here have shelled out as much as Aus$50m - about pounds 18m - for each gold medal won by their sports stars at the last five Olympic Games.

One of the best home pros-pects for gold at the Sydney Olympiad in the year 2000, the 400 metre athlete Cathy Freeman, developed her talent at the Victoria Institute of Sport in Melbourne. Generously state- funded, it also boasts a highly impressive squad of young cricketers, developed with great attention to detail during their one or two-year scholarships.

The VIS cricket coach, Neil Buszard, has the budget to experiment with new innovations like, for instance, a two-way radio system which allows touchline coaching during practice games. On one end, a small receiver is hooked on to the batsman's waistband with an earpiece taped to his neck. On the other, the coach can offer advice on particular flaws, or encouragement when he sees something good, as it happens.

Buszard and his colleagues have even set up transmitters working on the same principle to monitor the batsman's heart rate during a match situation, so he can put them through extra drills to reproduce the same level of bodily activity when his young charges are practising in the nets. He told the Independent: "The beauty is that we're not just standing still, and expecting cricket to stay where it was 10 years ago. We're trying to take it into the next millennium." Unless England are very careful, by the time they have caught up, the Aussies will have moved further on.

Sheltering from one of Melbourne's seasonal downpours, Buszard lobs practice balls to his most promising young pupil, the Australia Under-19 talent Michael Klinger. "There's very tough competition, especially as there's only six batting club spots up for grabs in the whole of Australia," Klinger says. "Whatever you can do to get an advantage over the next guy, that's the key. Working hard on your fitness, skill, training four or five times a week."

The structure of the game here, with State sides vying for the highly competitive Sheffield Shield offering a middle tier of ability between Test and English county level, has manifold advantages. The sincerest English tribute to their all-conquering hosts is the ECB's belated embrace of a divisional structure, with the strongest teams no longer guaranteed easy fixtures against the weakest, to go with its own gleaming new academy.

The restricted number of opportunities at the higher levels, with the academy structure, certainly leads to an emphasis on technique in developing the best young players, not necessarily winning every game as they make their way up. "We teach the process. Get the process right, and hopefully, along the way, that win will come," Buszard says.

Along the way for England, the Prime Minister's XI at Canberra, then Saturday's four-dayer against an Australian XI at Hobart. The line-up for that game supports Klinger's observations about the competition for places, with batsmen Darren Lehmann and Greg Blewett among those with Test experience hoping to impress the selectors.