CRICKET: Embarrassed Aussies tire of the same old fare

Gough and Atherton aside, the fans feel cheated. Richard Yallop reports
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Australians will ring in the new year canonising their blond bombshell, Shane Warne, and celebrating their 2-0 Ashes lead over England, but once the fizz has died down, they will be left with the taste of a flat victory.

Australians love to win, but what sort of opposition has this England side provided? There's almost a sense of embarrassment at catching an opponent continually with his trousers down - the real question being, is there anything under the trousers?

English manhood was not questioned by Australia's cricket columnists in the wake of the Melbourne thrashing, but everything else was. Once you've gone through "pathetic, spineless, gutless, hopeless, and shameful", the readers have pretty much got the picture of this particular English combination - "team" being an inappropriate description.

It will be no surprise if an Australian somewhere invokes the Trade Practices Act before the end of the season to complain that England have failed to comply with the competitive requirements of an Ashes series. It is supposed to generate the white heat of competition, and Australians feel almost cheated that they are being denied a contest by this England side.

At the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Boxing Day there were plenty of Australians willing an England recovery, so that they might at least make a match of it. You can get fed up with England batting collapses after a while, just as you can tire of eating caviar for every meal.

The ultimate indignity for England is that it was being suggested yesterday that Sri Lanka, who will be Australia's opponents in next year's Boxing Day Test at the MCG, are sure to offer greater resolve and a fiercer contest than England. Melbourne commentators had expressed some pique that Pakistan, who will play three Tests here early next Australian summer, had not been scheduled for Melbourne, which attracts the biggest crowds in Australia.

But Mike Coward wrote yesterday in The Australian that at least the Sri Lankans would bring honour to their country by "having a good old-fashioned red-blooded go''. Coward said that on Sri Lanka's recent record against Australia, they would be committed, convincing and competitive - "and that is more than can be said for England''.

Things have reached a fairly desperate state when Australians actually feel sorry for an England cricket team. But people look at the Dad's Army brigade - Gooch and Gatting - waddling around in the field and, if they don't laugh, they feel sorry for them. And they feel sorry for Mike Atherton, a plucky young captain and opening batsman who always seems to carry the innings and the team on his back.

They look at Graeme Hick, and recognise talent, but they are suspicious of whether he has the courage or application to match, and feel affronted that the press ever had the gall to call him "the new Bradman'', when he was in his early glory days at Worcester. They remember the season he spent at Queensland, and the vulnerability it exposed against the fast, lifting ball.

But most of all, they admire Darren Gough, with his puffed-out chest and his transparent relish at joining Ashes combat. Australians know a competitor when they see one, and they have not forgotten the two sixes Gough hit off McDermott in the Brisbane Test. He, like Ian Botham, would be granted "honorary Australian'' status.

Australians also remember the agonies Allan Border endured in the early and middle Eighties, when Australia lost successive Ashes series to England, and its fortunes appeared to reach as low an ebb as England's now. Given time and backing, Border pulled through, and Australians feel that Atherton should get the same "fair go".

Border's later successes, particularly on the 1989 and 1993 Ashes tours to England, support the argument of the "cricketing cycle", that England will eventually come good. But the Australian Cricket Board also appears to have done more to lengthen the peaks and flatten the troughs by bringing on young talent at the Cricket Academy in Adelaide, now run by the former Test wicketkeeper, Rodney Marsh. Australians are still waiting for a good look at John Crawley, England's token "young batting talent".

Victory is always more highly prized against England, so it still tastes sweet, whatever the shortcomings of the opposition. But Australia has failed to impress against other sides - it lost the recent three-Test series in Pakistan - and in two months time it leaves for the West Indies. That tour will give a good indication of whether Australia are currently wearing a counterfeit crown.