Cricket: England are caught in a logic-jam

Andrew Longmore argues that clarity of thought cannot hide the shortcomings
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The Independent Online
A breathless victory over the Minor Counties the day after the Third Test suggested that the Australians celebrated long and loud on their way north from Old Trafford. With the centre point of the tour reached in very much better shape than had seemed likely during the June monsoons, their captain had sidled off for a week's holiday and Shane Warne had flown back to Australia to see his new child. The timing of the revival was particularly neat.

Had Australia still been behind in the series, such half- holidays might not have been viewed very charitably by their press and public. Imagine the reaction of the English tabloids if, with an Ashes series delicately poised, Michael Atherton had taken a week off tour to go fishing and Gough flown home for a pint in the Jolly Farmer. But on the back of a thumping win, with Warne back in the wickets, the Waughs stacking up the runs and the England batsmen showing more signs of frailty - at Lord's against the moving ball, at Old Trafford against the turning ball - Australia could afford to view their week of "fancy hat" cricket, with due respect to the Minor Counties, Scotland and John Paul Getty's All-Star XI, as a chance for some light relief.

Australia have every right to be full of themselves. The momentum in the series has swung back their way, not least, as Mark Taylor pointed out, because if the score stays level, Australia retain the Ashes. More importantly, they have rediscovered their resilience, their chipperness, the one-for-all mentality which has marked their dominance.

Steve Waugh's twin centuries were pivotal, innings of cussed maturity, but his support from the lower order was equally influential. Australia's last five batsmen mustered 216 runs in the match; England's 86, only 10 more than Paul Reiffel, whose stout partnership with Waugh on the first day made Taylor's decision to bat look very much healthier than it should have done. England can search their motivational tapes and attend seminars from here to Headingley, but the ability to make the whole slightly more than the sum of its parts can only be learnt in the middle. England folded with uncomfortable ease at Old Trafford.

They did their best to look chipper in the aftermath of defeat. Atherton announced he was not "unduly concerned" about Warne, which raised an eyebrow or two - not least in the Australian dressing-room, one imagines - and promised a right good scrap at Headingley in 10 days' time. But there was something rather scripted and desperate about the apparent unconcern and about the decision to give the defeated team an immediate vote of confidence. Some on the county circuit might wonder if the last three completed innings of 77, 162 and 200, though clearly indicating an upward trend, might not be the cause for a minor shake-up in the batting. In the past, heads would have rolled like hoops down a hill and every county pro would have hovered by the phone just in case the selectors decided a David Steele was required.

The clarity of thought is admirable, even if the rationale is a little worrying. The message is: these are the best we have got, so we are sticking with them. True, up to a point. There are no obvious candidates for inclusion and precious little County Championship cricket to assess new form. All the batsmen have scored runs at different times. Only occasionally have they done so in unison. John Crawley's skilled 83 in a lost cause at Old Trafford should be set against scores of 1, 1 and 4 in the first innings of the three Tests (Atherton at 2, 1 and 5 is not much better) when the match is in the balance. Steve Waugh has a Test career average in first innings of over 60,.

The early announcement of the 12 for Headingley is a test of principle as much as player. Continuity has been one of the buzzwords of the new regime. The removal of uncertainty, the ending of fear will be welcomed by the players, the sort of luxurious, cosy, "same again, lads" comfort blanket Gooch and Gatting, two of the selectors, would doubtless have liked a little more often during their own international careers. Yet fear and uncertainty are potent motivational forces, as most decent football managers or even Lord MacLaurin of Knebworth and Tesco would tell you. The England management team must be very sure of their men to give them such instant security in such a manifestly insecure profession. Does that breed toughness?

Robert Croft, for one, will be grateful for the stay of execution. On a turning pitch, he managed two wickets and batted without conviction, while Caddick's ineffectiveness was heightened by the bursting enthusiasm of Dean Headley, whose eight wickets brought England a glimpse or two of hope.

Before the Fourth Test, the England players will gather for a team-building seminar, to be addressed by one of the management team from the successful Lions rugby tour. His theme, presumably, will be winning against the odds; the hope is that some of the stardust will touch the shoulders of the England cricket team. Driving Land-Rovers through terrain more dubious than the Old Trafford pitch is harmless enough. Whether it will help the team to combat Shane Warne or persuade Atherton towards his best form is open to doubt. The Australians might be a bit perplexed by it all. Rediscovering the winning feeling will be motivation enough for them. Edgbaston? When was that?

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