Cricket: Buzz, words and the stress syndrome

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The Independent Online
There were some stirring speeches flying around on the eve of the Ashes series. It was our last team meeting before the First Test, and for two days since we arrived in Brisbane from Cairns there had been a real buzz about the place.

The media were in attendance at every practice session, spectators poured round to watch. This was it and just in case we were in any doubt of what we were here for Angus Fraser put it into perspective when we assembled the night before the match.

The entire cricketing public was aware of what Mike Gatting's team had achieved here, he said. That was a decade ago but everyone still talked about it, Gatting's side would be forever recalled. This England, Angus said, had a chance of making history. We knew it, of course, but those words still really hit home.

Alec Stewart, the captain, said quietly but determinedly that of all the touring parties of which he had been a member this was the best prepared and David Lloyd, the coach, said there would be highs and lows, that things might not always go quite our way but we were a team of 11 men who would have to stick at it in the heat of battle.

I do not suppose many of us slept well, Test matches always have that effect. I was still not sure of my place in the team. My wife had told me from home that she had seen the squad on Teletext and my name was at number seven. If they played six batsmen, that would mean I was out. Would I or wouldn't I play?

In the event the captain told me quite early in the day that I was in and that John Crawley was 12th man. John has looked in good form and was every bit as disappointed as I would have been. But at least the selection has shown that there is genuine competition for places.

Australia, too, have that and there was much speculation here about whether their selectors had got it right. They appear to have plumped for a horses for courses policy, so Ricky Ponting was picked in Brisbane ahead of Darren Lehmann. Considering that Lehmann, who has been constantly prolific for Yorkshire these past two English summers, was a heavy run scorer during Australia's recent series defeat of Pakistan, this must have been a tough decision.

It means that Ponting as well as Michael Slater and Justin Langer further up the order will be expected to perform and perform quickly to keep their places. We adopted a policy of putting pressure on them, on the basis that Australia's tactic of chopping and changing could actually work in our favour.

We bowled well from the start. The nerves lasted for maybe 20 minutes or half an hour (I was under the helmet at short leg, which is not a position I automatically think of as my forte) but then you are in the match, every ball has to be contested. Australia were anxious to impose themselves - as they had famously done here four years ago - but we did not allow that. They were made to work for each run. Every spell was insistent.

Langer epitomised what the occasion meant to the Australians. Three weeks ago he made a fluent 80 at the WACA against us but here he was almost scratchy and nervous. It demonstrated the difference between state cricket and Test cricket and how it can affect players.

Only towards the end of the opening day did we let slip a positive advantage. A run-out of Steve Waugh, perhaps the turning point of the day, was missed and two hard but catchable chances went astray. Nasser Hussain put down his second opportunity late in the day. I remember him saying to me early on in this tour that the background and the speed of the ball would make catching difficult here.

Waugh is not the sort of player you want to let off lightly, though he did not look himself, and what an annoying cricketer Ian Healy is. He came in, had a couple of streaky scoring shots using his unorthodox methods and was away. We were a bit down in the dressing-room because of what might have been, but it was a day on which we exhibited our credentials.

It is draining stuff, Test cricket. Days are of 90 overs as opposed to the 104 in domestic cricket at home, but there really is no comparison, and no room for the slightest relaxation. The build-up, the atmosphere and everything that goes with it means you have to expect the ball to come to you all the time.

There could have been something more positive from day one but I pointed out in the dressing-room at the close, we had created plenty of chances. It is like a football team who keeps getting through the opposition defence but does not score. At least you take heart that you are capable of making the opening.

This first match is important, and winning it would be rather handy. But I do not subscribe to the theory as put forward most emphatically by Steve Waugh that the result will decide the whole series. We showed last summer against South Africa that we are a resilient side, capable of staying with the opposition and of coming back.

Winning the First Test is a fillip (did not England beat the Aussies at Edgbaston last year and then lose the Ashes?) but it is not necessarily the be all and end all.