Cricket: Crying out for believers

Hick and Tudor earn their keep for the Adelaide Test as batsmen's ears ring from the captain's criticism
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THE headline on this piece might read: "Graeme Hick, an apology." Last week I suggested that tears were the proper response to his performance on the first day of the Second Test in Perth when he got a duck and dropped a vital catch. Then, on the second day, Hick began a memorable innings which briefly allowed England to dream of mocking the odds and winning the game.

Hick scored more than any other batsman in this Test at the WACA: 68 runs off 73 balls with two long sixes off Jason Gillespie and eight fours. John Woodcock, the old sage among cricket commentators, had begun to assemble a list of great innings by England batsmen in Australia, starting off with Len Hutton and Wally Hammond, thinking that Hick might be about to join them.

But my apology is qualified, because a catch to second slip - the result of a careless swish off the back foot - ended the fantasy. Once Hick was gone the game was inevitably lost, and, instead of contemplating what might have been, we were back in the real world of what is and has been. And, like the Test career of Graeme Hick, England's performance has been unpredictable and, despite the presence of some purple patches, frustrating and ultimately disappointing.

After the game Mark Taylor, Australia's adroit captain, said that taking wickets in every session or batting right through one is a matter of belief: "If you don't have that belief, it won't happen." This England team is short on believers.

It is not the first, of course. When a Test is over in two and a half days, there is plenty of time to put a tour in perspective. Instead of watching England play Australia live, I read about a series that happened 61 years ago in a book called Australian Summer by Neville Cardus, an even older sage from two generations ago. Some of his comments could have been written last Tuesday.

"For my part," wrote Cardus, "I love a view of cricket which leaves room for easeful summer amenities; I love to laugh if a man misses a catch. But I also believe that Test cricket should strike fire out of a cricketer, inspire him beyond his common stature. Aubrey Faulkner once said that the difference between English and Australian cricketers, taking them by and large, was that the Australian in a Test match is a better player than usually he is - and the Englishman slightly worse." The reason Cardus gave is familiar, especially this week when the competitive structure of the game is under scrutiny: he blamed too much county cricket. "First- class cricket in Australia is always fresh; it is so seldom played... It is because a first-class match in Australia is always an event that it is always a challenge. Consequently, cricket is more tightly organised tactically as well as technically than it is in English county cricket, where on many a dog-day the game appears to move by itself."

Cardus wrote that Australians take an unsentimental view of the game, and that is still the case. On the morning after England's defeat by seven wickets I spoke to a friend in Melbourne who was contemptuous of an article he'd read that morning by an English journalist which said that England might have won in Brisbane and Perth if they had not dropped 10 catches and botched a vital run-out. "The point is they did drop the catches and they lost," said my friend, who has no patience with idle speculation.

Nor does Alec Stewart, who has more in common with Australians than any other member of the England team. Stewart was asked after the game whether those 10 dropped catches had indeed cost England two Tests: "I've lost count to be honest. But they didn't happen. We'll never know."

Stewart's opinion is that it was the batsmen who were principally at fault in Perth: "Getting out for 112 is one of the poorer performances I can remember from an English side," he said. Harsh words from a man normally reluctant to be judgemental about his colleagues. The only generous comment about England's performance was uttered by Mark Taylor: "I didn't think either side batted that well, and both sides bowled well. Days two and three were probably shared. We got the advantage on day one and they couldn't peg us back."

Taylor said he expected no changes in the Australian batting order for the Third Test, which starts at Adelaide on Friday. There will be one change among the bowlers, however, to accommodate Stuart MacGill, the leg spinner who began to terrorise England's batsmen on the final day at Brisbane. The victim will be either Colin Miller, who can bowl off- breaks - and it is never a disadvantage to have two spinners at Adelaide - or Jason Gillespie. Dropping Gillespie would be another example of the Australian selectors' "horses for courses" policy, and it would be no less just than dropping MacGill after Brisbane.

Cardus had a view on that too: "The Australians take a serious view of the game... Maybe the Australian misses much because of his devotion to an ideal of technical perfection, but he escapes the sloppiness of outlook which sometimes causes cricket in England to appear unctuous to mere footballers, jockeys, tennis players and throwers of the dart."

Gillespie's opinion about the prospect of being dropped after taking 5 for 88 in England's second innings on his return to Test cricket from serious injury is wonderfully unsentimental: "It doesn't worry me; that's the way cricket's going. If you don't play, you don't play. It's not the end of the world."

England's team is harder to pick. If Graham Thorpe is fit, he will obviously return to the side on a ground where he has already scored a double century on this tour. Since England cannot contemplate playing in Adelaide without a spinner, surely, Robert Croft will be back. Two of the Perth team will have to be dropped.

Because Hick can bowl off-spin, he ought to have the edge over John Crawley, who was incapable of coping with the pace and bounce of the WACA. Perhaps the obvious candidate to make way for Croft is the debutant, Alex Tudor, but he impressed Taylor at Perth ("good length, reasonable pace and he got a bit of shape"). The Australians may already take Tudor more seriously than Dominic Cork, who has batted wretchedly at No 8 and sometimes seems less than fully committed to his bowling. Sadly, there seems to be no place for Angus Fraser. Brisbane and Perth should have suited an English attack which emphasises seam and swing. It is hard to imagine this team coming back at Adelaide - although Atherton's team did win there in 1994- 95, and whoever wins the toss has a distinct advantage.

The only small consolation of the week is another bit of history. In 1886 (as many years ago as England's runs in the first innings at Perth) the Demon Spofforth, the fearsome Australian fast bowler, said: "Cricketers, I think, come in cycles. I speak generally; of course every year brings new recruits, but, if you think my opinion is worth repeating, it is that there are interregnums in cricket."

An interregnum now would suit England nicely.