It seems hard to believe that only 12 months ago England arrived at this point of the summer drawing 1-1 with Pakistan, who required the full five- match distance before finishing them off with a fusillade of inswinging yorkers. This time it has not remotely resembled a contest, a two-horse race in which Australia's serious claim to thoroughbred status has been submerged by England's resemblance to the back end of a pantomime horse.
Australia's batting has been so powerful, admittedly against an attack of the water pistol variety, that Damien Martyn - who would walk into England's side - has not even played in one Test. Shane Warne and Tim May are a class above any spinner that England have called upon, and Merv Hughes and Paul Reiffel have regularly taken wickets at pivotal moments.
It is doubtless this lack of credit that has led to Border's fluctuations in humour, although the Australian captain's moods - like England victories - tend to depend on juxtapositions of Venus. Yesterday, though, when pressed for comparisons, he was even moved to compare his team with the baggy green caps of 1948. 'Are they that good?' Border was asked. 'If you take Bradman out - yeah.'
It was before the Oval Test in 1989 that Border talked about it being probably his last international appearance in England. Yesterday, he was saying the same thing, and it is a long way from being irrelevant to the dilapidated state of English cricket that Border, at 38, is unusually elderly for an Australian cricketer.
Graham Gooch, who requires 74 more runs to replace David Gower as England's leading Test run-scorer, was talking the other day about sticking with the 'younger guys', but it is precisely because the English system encourages 40-year-olds to keep plodding on (good though they may be) that keeps these 'younger guys' from breaking through until they are closer to the Phyllosan than the rusk.
A decent example of this came when Sussex won the Second XI Championship in 1990. Yet because they were not winning anything with the senior side, they did not so much raid the nursery as the graveyard and signed Bill Athey and Eddie Hemmings. In many cases, team managers are part of the problem. They are paid, by and large, to win trophies, which invariably leads to a short-term outlook.
On the other side of the coin, England's occasional flirtations with investing in long-term class have not always met with good fortune, and it is almost beyond argument that their Test record over the past three or four years would have been a good deal better had Angus Fraser played more than 11 Tests since his debut against the 1989 Australians at Edgbaston.
Ironically, Fraser returns to the side today because Martin Bicknell has been forced to drop out with knee trouble and good though it is to have him back, it would be expecting rather a lot for him to cut a swathe through an Australian batting line-up currently averaging over 60 runs per wicket. 'This might sound stupid,' Keith Fletcher said when the team manager was prefixing Tuesday's comment of 'but there is not a lot between these two sides' and indeed (given that England are averaging 30 per wicket) it did.
Not quite as stupid, however, as England's policy towards Fraser on their last Ashes tour in 1990-91, when his willingness to bowl long spells persuaded Gooch and Micky Stewart to use him as a hod-carrier rather than a craftsman. Fraser was also selected for a fatuous one-day international when he was half fit and, after ending that tour very nearly in a bathchair, he has not played since.
Fraser, Steve Watkin and Devon Malcolm are all likely to play in an England side locked into a seven-batsman policy, which in itself gives off a negative lack of faith message to the individuals concerned. Greater faith hath no side than England, however, when it comes to Graeme Hick and he will bat at No 3 here ahead of Graham Thorpe, who moves up two places, and Matthew Maynard, who goes back one. Alec Stewart, stuck with the gloves again, goes in at No 6.
The Oval pitch has a shade more grass than usual and as seven batsmen equates to four bowlers, England will have to leave out either Philip Tufnell or, more probably, Peter Such this morning. However, if the Australian batsmen indulge themselves in their customary gluttony, England might have to call upon their leading Test wicket-taker in India and Sri Lanka, Hick. This in itself is an eloquent comment on England's bowling resources.
England (from): M A Atherton (capt), G A Gooch, G A Hick, G P Thorpe, M P Maynard, A J Stewart (wkt), N Hussain, A R C Fraser, P C R Tufnell, S L Watkin, D E Malcolm, P M Such.
Australia (from): M A Taylor, M J Slater, D C Boon, M E Waugh, A R Border (capt), S R Waugh, I A Healy (wkt), M G Hughes, P R Reiffel, S K Warne, T B A May, W J Holdsworth.
Umpires: M J Kitchen and B J Meyer.Reuse content