Cricket: Clear air after the deluge

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The Independent Online
We had a frank and open team meeting before the Fourth Test in Melbourne was due to begin. Many people spoke, different opinions were put forward, but by the end the air was clear, the mood notably more upbeat and the feeling unanimous: that when a decision has been made the 11 players on the field must stick by it and see it through.

The reason for the candour was the defeat in Tasmania in which an Australia A XI made more than 370 runs in 55.2 overs to beat us. The pitch was something a batsman might imagine would exist only in paradise and Greg Blewett, the South Australian player, hardly needed any extra encouragement.

He is in prime form and the ball flew off the middle of his bat. On the rare occasions it didn't it went into a gap. He scored an unbeaten double- hundred and has now accumulated more than 1,000 runs before the end of the year, only the fifth Australian to do so.

But scintillating exhibition or not, we knew that an international team should not be giving away that amount of runs in that amount of time. That defeat represented the rock-bottom moment of the tour, not least because it was a match in which most players had made runs and England were in charge.

Part of the trouble was that there was a division of feeling about the decision for England to declare and set a target on the final day. Some felt that it was the thing to do to make the match some sort of contest, others were opposed to that idea, and there was nothing in between.

The Australians got off to a flyer and were 120 for 1 by lunch. It was then that the only light moment of the proceedings was provided. As we sat in the dressing-room realising a long afternoon lay ahead, in came a familiar figure. He wore a scarlet tunic, black boots and a white beard. He had broad shoulders and a beaming smile. Yes, it was Darren Gough dressed as Father Christmas.

And he said: "In my sack I've got a bagful of wickets for Gus Fraser." At this, a silence befell the room. It seemed to last an eternity. All heads turned towards the recipient of this purported gift - and then the old pro's features broke into a smile.

There was not much else to smile about in the match thereafter and in the later afternoon we didn't play as an XI really. The one-eyed Australian press had a good time at our expense: "Bring on the Third Team", said the headlines. From our point of view it was not the defeat so much as the manner of it which hurt most.

Hence the meeting when we arrived in Melbourne. The discussion was measured and honest. There was no tea-cup throwing and at the end the squad were in a much better frame of mind. We had three days to prepare for the Test. We practised on the morning of Christmas Day, then had a large lunch. There were five of us whose families had not come out so we gravitated to one end of the table (Norman No-Friends, we were) and Mark Butcher and the physiotherapist, Wayne Morton, provided the entertainment on guitar.

The start of the Test was delayed as was the announcement of our team. On arrival at the ground, Alex Tudor, who was likely to play, pronounced himself unfit with a niggle in the area of groin and thigh. The selectors had some quick, earnest conversing to do and emerged with a side of six batsman, four seamers and a wicketkeeper-batsman. The nod went to Fraser on the sort of pitch where his bowling often prospers. It had a green tinge to it and more showers are expected.

This has not been the most successful of tours so far for Gus and he was left out of the side after the First Test. He has not been slow to voice his opinion (after taking more than 50 Test wickets this year) that there is one selectorial rule for batsmen and another for bowlers.

The other change in the team was the inclusion of Warren Hegg. There was genuine pleasure in the party that he had been picked. It must have been a difficult tour for him, it always is for reserve wicketkeepers, but he has been superb. I remember he came on as 12th man in Melbourne during the state game, donned the gloves and took a really good catch and got a stumping. He's been a really good team man.

The Australians called up Matt Nicholson, from Western Australia, who took seven wickets against us in Perth early in the tour, and left out Ricky Ponting. The omission of Ponting, who is rated very highly here, merely confirms the present strength of their batting and the competition for places.

It was fascinating to hear Ponting interviewed on the decision to leave him out. He said he had felt under constant pressure for his place and that every game might be his last. Batting at No 6, he has also had the conundrum of whether to play himself in or go for his shots. Different players respond in different ways and while Michael Slater and Justin Langer might have felt similarly under threat they have made runs. It also shows that Australia are willing to change a side even though they are winning.

The rain on the first day here gave the opportunity for the television to show some old matches from the Eighties. Two things were noticeable. First, none of the clips was of a match England won (and that included footage from the 1986-87 tour when England won just about everything). Second, many of those playing are now commentators, which provided us with evidence that it is a much easier game from the sidelines.

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