Cricket: Collapse of the heart of England

Henry Blofeld says spring success has been allowed to go to waste
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The Independent Online
Since that inspiring stand between Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe at Edgbaston, England's batting has been an unmitigated disaster. They were bowled out for 77 in the first innings at Lord's, 162 at Old Trafford and 172 at Headingley.

The result has been that in all three matches England have been committed from an early stage to playing catch-up cricket and have not managed it.

The old adage that it is bowling that wins matches may be true, but batting points a side down the right road. The abject failure of a batting unit which left Birmingham in such good fettle has been the biggest mystery of the summer so far.

Although an out-of-form Shane Warne was put in his place in that First Test, he was always likely to be a danger at some stage, if only because of the psychological advantage he had built up over England's batsmen in past series. Warne has struck seriously once, in the first innings at Old Trafford, but otherwise it has been the swing and seam bowling of Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie which has caused the problems. Quality performers, but the type of bowler with whom one would expect England's batsmen to be able to cope. What has gone wrong?

Good batsmen have continually let themselves down and left one wondering if they were ever quite as good as first thought. At Edgbaston, Hussain probably batted better than he had ever done. Since then, he has looked vulnerable to the moving ball and his playing of Warne at Old Trafford was tortured.

Thorpe too, has failed to live up to his 138 in that First Test. His playing of Warne since has been awful and his misjudgement of Gillespie's length in the first innings in this Test was extraordinary for such a good player. John Crawley's four first-innings scores in this series of one, one, four and two tell the story of a batsman who, for all his natural ability, may have problems in coping with pressure or even with himself.

The openers, Mike Atherton and Mark Butcher, have been as consistent as anyone. Atherton's concentration is formidable, yet he has twice been out hooking. It is strange that someone who can hardly be described as a compulsive stroke-maker should be a compulsive hooker, but, hard as he may try, he apparently cannot stop himself.

Butcher, after a nervous start at Edgbaston, has looked more composed than anyone and his increasing confidence has done wonders. But he must stop getting out when he has done the hard work at the start of the innings. Until he goes on and makes the big score which he continually hints at, a slight question mark will remain.

This leaves Alec Stewart, a prolific and consistent scorer who has been unsettled by Warne and is now in a bad patch, which can happen to anyone. It is just unfortunate that his should coincide with so many others.

The principal components which England's top six need are discipline, confidence and self-belief and no one seems to have all three. The last two are not quite the same thing. Steve Waugh went out to bat at Old Trafford short of runs. He was not confident but his self-belief was rock hard and he made a century in each innings, both of which demonstrated admirably the need for discipline however talented a batsman may be. Not for him, the risks all of England's batsmen have been taking.

Matthew Elliott disciplines flair with dedication; Ricky Ponting radiates self-belief, which he curbs with an impeccable technique and a refusal ever to disregard the basics. It is strange that the best of all, Mark Waugh, is having a bad series. It can happen to anyone. At heart all the Australians are born fighters and sell their wickets dearly. Perhaps England's batsmen should pay a little more attention to their opponents.