Cricket: Dangers abound beyond Waugh zone

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The Independent Online
POKING a stick into a hornet's nest can be a risky business. A couple of Australian summers ago, in a day-night World Series match in Sydney, Dean Jones asked the West Indian Curtly Ambrose to take off the white sweatband on his bowling wrist.

Curtly responded as only he knows how - knitted forehead, eyes on high beam and 5 for 32. Good night Australia.

Now, on the eve of the 1997 Ashes, two other high-profile Australians, Mark Waugh and Bob Simpson, have been stirring England's cricketers. Waugh says they're short on toughness, Simpson says they need to go back to basics. We can all nod wearily when "Simmo" mentions basics, because that's been his coaching catch-phrase forever, but to those of us who know Mark Waugh his talking tough about opponents is a culture shock. The great batsman's criticisms usually match his shot-making, delivered not by 2lb 6oz of wood but with the gentleness of a feather.

The obvious question for England is this: is it true? If the answer is "no", then England have been fooling a lot of people for a long time. The next question is the tough one: can England respond to a bit of niggle as well as Curtly Ambrose?

On paper, this Ashes series looks to belong to Australia, but paper is a flimsy base on which to build an argument about anything that might happen on a field of battle. After all, England looked a good thing when they faced up to William Wallace at Stirling Bridge in 1297.

The key will be England's ability to defuse Australia's main strengths - the middle- order batting and the tactical nous of the captain, Mark Taylor. In both instances England's bowlers will be decisive.

The last two Ashes series in England were notable for Australia's massive scoring - four totals exceeded 600. Glorious batting? Just as likely glum bowling - as Rod Marsh emphasised with the infamous "pie-throwers" jibe. England can afford none of that if they are to win back the Ashes. And, if the bowlers can consistently restrict the Australians to 300, they must have a chance.

Australia have looked soft at the top of the order, though that might be solved if Slater and Taylor open, an old, successful firm strangely split when the selectors suffered a collective mental breakdown at the start of the last Australian summer. England must try to exploit Slater's doubts - "am I batting the way the selectors want me to?" - and Taylor's run drought.

Matt Elliott is a classy strokemaker and an ideal No 3, whose enterprise might rekindle memories of times when the Australian first drop was a bit of a "dasher". England will have noted he can be careless on the hook. But have they got a bowler fiery enough to benefit? Perhaps Darren Gough, at his best.

Mark Waugh retains his unbothered and exquisite style, batting like a gentleman gardener, surveying, smelling and gathering in his rose patch. Perhaps the genetic engineers can explain why Steve, the twin brother, bats only in hob-nail, steel-capped boots.

The theories about Steve being weak against fast, short-pitched bowling have been explored over and over. His Test rating of No 1 in the world and his average, comfortably settled at 50, suggest a lot of bowlers have been wasting a lot of time and energy. His form might reflect Australia's fortunes during the series. He is now a master of "snub batsmanship" - playing only the balls he feels he must, and when he does, precisely choosing which ones are worth the risk of a scoring shot. England's spin attack of Robert Croft and Phil Tufnell may be Atherton's best option to maintain pressure on him.

The No 6 spot will be fought over by Greg Blewett and Michael Bevan. The former can be tied up by good spin, or beaten by the fast men between bat and pad. Calling Dominic Cork. Bevan's bowling may get him the nod. The Australians have been going into recent Tests with only three and a half bowlers - two pacemen, Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie, the spinner Shane Warne, and the part-time spinner Bevan. It's unlikely they can persist with that high-risk strategy, at least first up.

Expect another paceman to be groomed - Andy Bichel or Mike Kasprowicz, who take the ball away from the right-hander, or Brendon Julian. None is as good as Paul Reiffel, left out because of a chronic back problem. Australia's bowlers lack experience in English conditions, but that may be offset by England's inconsistent batting. The opener Nick Knight and the low middle-order seem to be problems, at least from this distance.

If Knight is stumbling, the temptation for David Graveney's selectors would be to go for the rookie Mark Butcher straight up. But the first Test of an Ashes series can be an unhappy place for a batsman to be making his debut against a tough guy like Glenn McGrath. And young Gillespie might be as raw as rare steak, but he's a red-blooded competitor.

The Australians, Mark Waugh included, are aware that England are showing signs of revival. There is a balance to the team, and stability in selection. It was noted that in New Zealand the same team was retained for successive Tests - after 33 Tests of twiddling.

Mark Waugh is right - Atherton must get England playing tough cricket to win back the Ashes. Furthermore, Atherton should forget about tossing the coin with any other captain than Mark Taylor. Ian Healy, rightly dropped from the vice-captaincy, suggested in the darkness of the morning after that his demise could mean team destabilisation. I don't think England should rely too much on team disharmony becoming a chink in what is a classy Australian outfit.