Cricket: Early warming signs for Team England

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The Independent Online
It was a close opening contest of this Ashes tour. It went down to the last ball and England won. A traditional opener it may have been but it merely emphasised the fact that there is no such thing as a relaxed game out here. A crowd of more than 12,000 also reinforced the stereotypical image of the Australian male.

That was an early experience of something we know will lie in store round every cricketing corner in the next few months. On the pitch, in the media and in the crowds not a chance will be missed to try to chip away at our will. That is why it is important to start well and to remain strong collectively.

It is well known by now that Team England now includes a physio, Wayne Morton, a full-time fitness consultant, Dean Riddle, and a sports psychologist, Steve Bull. Being knocked is something the team will have to cope with, and perhaps we can use it to our advantage, binding us into a still tighter unit. Togetherness will be crucial here because the team spirit will be severely tested, not only by a team of rather good cricketers but also by all the ancillary figures.

Ex-players, so-called media experts - not to mention the waiter in the hotel - will all be prepared to have a dig, especially when things are not going well for us. Some of it can be good-natured banter but it can all have an an effect on our outlook and confidence.

Bull has already had individual sessions with all the players. He is extremely impressive (touching, for instance, on how you might cope walking out to bat in front of 80,000 noisy, partisan people at Melbourne). If he mentions 10 points and only one applies to you it has still been worthwhile.

The cricketing preparation has been similarly meticulous. Team England has acquired an important new addition, one recruited, indeed, from the enemy ranks. Peter Philpott was a leg-spin bowler who captained New South Wales and played eight Tests for Australia in the Sixties. In the First Test against England in 1965-66 he took 5 for 90 including the wickets of Geoff Boycott and John Edrich.

Apparently Dennis Lillee had a dig in one of the papers the other day about Philpott's enlistment, saying that if England could not play the leg-spin of Shane Warne by now they never could. But it seems only common sense that every avenue is explored to give us the edge. We had an enjoyable and illuminating session learning about the vagaries of wrist spin, how to pick different deliveries and trying to understand the bowler's thought processes. It was the first time that the discipline had been fully explained to me with such expertise. Wrist-spin has all but vanished in England and consequently the skills not only in bowling it but in batting against it have been diminished as well.

Philpott's experience in Australia and in working with Warne and Stuart MacGill could prove invaluable. He is working with everyone to have a definite plan when going to the crease. Crucially, as every good coach should do, he encourages the batsmen not to try something new but to play to known strengths, whether that be sweeping spinners or using your feet against them.

Of course, the pitches here in Perth, where we have spent the first week, tend to favour the quickies. The nets have been superb, better than most match pitches in England (apart from Uxbridge CC). There is extra bounce and pace here - much different from the low, slow tracks we played on in England for most of the summer just gone - and it takes some readjustment to deal with a ball from a length which might have bounced waist high a couple of months ago and is now heading for your face.

Again the advice has been top class. Graham Gooch, now the tour manager, has been constantly ironing out small faults, handing down the wisdom of his four Australian tours as a player.

Of course, such pitches can also be to our benefit, and one person endeavouring to take advantage of the extra pace and bounce is Alex Tudor, 21 only a week ago. It was mentioned when he was selected that this is mainly a learning tour for him, but the way he has started must put him in contention for a Test debut at some point. At 6ft 5in with a high action he is a real prospect.

Australia has seen the emergence of young English bowlers before - Norman Cowans and Phillip DeFreitas of recent vintage - and I think young Alex could surprise a few people here. When he hits his rhythm he looks comparable, from slip, to a young Ambrose. Lavish praise, but he started well at Lilac Hill in the first match, gaining two crucial wickets once the rustiness was out.

For the opposition the veterans Lillee and Bruce Reid both bowled well with the new ball and while it was generally hard work for bowlers all day, the runs for Mike Atherton, Alec Stewart and John Crawley were welcome. Crawley looked especially fluent and is in good form.

These are early days in the tour but maybe the bowling places for the opening Test later this month look slightly more settled at present than the batting ones. The batting places, perhaps six of them, look up for grabs in the middle order. I did not have much of an innings in the opening match and would like to get a start against Western Australia. But you cannot put pressure on yourself.

This has been an instructive week of preparation for the battles to come. Lilac Hill and its crowd only gave us a sample of what lies ahead.