Cricket: England go in search of `a big ask'

Test Cricket: Stewart's team fly to Australia today in the pursuit of Ashes glory but the odds are stacked against them
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The Independent Online
MODERN TEST cricketers do not have time for a close season anymore. For the England team who set off from Heathrow for Australia at noon today, only four weeks have separated the end of a hectic summer and their winter tour. It is barely enough time to sweep up the autumn leaves let alone the Ashes, which is no doubt what the England captain will be putting on his immigration form under the "Purpose of Trip" section.

Once they arrive, England play their opening match on 29 October at Lilac Hill. The first Test in Brisbane follows three weeks later, after which two of the remaining Tests (the second and the fifth) are back to back. The 13-match triangular one-day series follows in the second week of January.

There are no in-betweens when you tour Australia, and England must start well, using their early matches not so much to remove cobwebs but to groove winning ways. In the eyes of the public, you are either a mug, a champion or a Pom, with no guesses as to which one is considered synonymous with parasites and other single-celled life forms. Quite simply, England will have to win something to court any kind of respect.

"Australia are the best side in world cricket," said Stewart. "Their record proves that. They are beatable, though, and if we can improve on our performances in the latter part of the series, we stand ourselves in good stead. If I thought otherwise, we may as well not go."

Despite their captain's infectious bravado, England travel more in hope than expectation and must be one up after two Tests to retain any chance of winning or even sharing the series. Peaking early will be essential and Australia will not wilt as Hansie Cronje's South African side did, after getting their noses in front last summer.

The itinerary, which has been split to accommodate the modish notion that one-day and Test cricket are a mutually exclusive form of the game, may actually help Stewart's men. Condensing five Test matches into little more than six weeks will be demanding on players. If England have little experience of success against Australia, they will at least be more used to the ensuing fatigue than their opponents.

Of the party, only Graham Gooch, the manager, knows what it is like to taste an Ashes series victory, and that in England 13 years ago. Beating the Aussies on home soil - something managed only four times in 16 series since 1946 - will, in local parlance, be "a big ask" despite the recent morale- boosting win over South Africa.

The reasons are simple. Australia have a team of depth and quality, though the former could be stretched in the bowling department if old injuries to match-winners Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie flare up.

Those slight worries aside, and provided what is happening on the field in Pakistan is not at the behest of the Bombay bookies, as many in a Lahore court seem at pains to claim, Mark Taylor's side look even stronger and more assured than normal. And that without the golden boy Shane Warne.

Since his shoulder injury and the subsequent corrective operation, Warne has been involved in a squall of speculation over the date of his return. Part of this might be kidology, but even someone of Warne's talents needs to get some overs in before bowling in a Test. His withdrawal from Victoria's Shield game this week suggests he is a long way from fizzing them down and it will be surprising if he plays in more than three of the five Tests.

Stewart, never one to gloat over misfortune, is adamant that he wants the leg-spinner to play. "I hope Warne is fit," said Stewart. "I want to be able to say we've beaten the best Australian side."

These are bold words from the England skipper, who must get his players to match them with deeds. Stewart's biggest problem will be making his side really believe they can win, something that will not be easy despite the sporting mind's tendency to suspend reality.

The only way this can realistically be achieved is to pare everything down to the point where individual balls and overs become the building blocks, the atoms and molecules, of victory.

It will be difficult mentally for players raised in a soft system, but England must limit their ambition and build winning positions an over at a time. Only then will they have a chance of breaking down Australia's powerful batting line-up, or scoring competitive totals.

That aside, there are two other commandments to observe. The first is do not fall to a soft dismissal; the other, that the new ball must not be wasted. Both are linked to concentration or rather lack of it. A quality surprisingly difficult to maintain once the flies and hot winds blow in from the desert, and the sledging gets turned up.

On the Ashes tour of 1982-83, I had been warned about the flies and duly slapped on some repellant. Like almost everything in Australia, the insects are a different breed and hardy as hell. Espying me out on the fine leg boundary at the WACA, they descended. Far from being repelled they appeared to be attracted to the chemical patina and promptly licked it off.

It was not the only presumption to be overturned. Forget the fast pitches of yore. While it is true Kookaburra balls tend to swing and bounce steeply for about an hour - a situation that surely cries out for Andy Caddick - only the WACA in Perth maintains its carry. Otherwise, most pitches are batsman-friendly.

Controlled aggression is therefore vital for those opening the bowling - probably Angus Fraser and Darren Gough - and England must try to expose some part of the middle-order while the ball is still hard. Likewise the experience of Michael Atherton, along with the the improving Mark Butcher, will be vital in keeping foraging Australians away from England's stroke- players like Stewart and Nasser Hussain.

Butcher's left-handedness, along with Graham Thorpe's, will be an important foil to Australia's wrist spinners. A role of huge importance should Warne join forces with Stuart MacGill earlier than expected.

But more important than all the sideshows is that England, given that overall victory is unlikely, must make sure they compete. The Ashes is the greatest sporting love-hate relationship of all. It would be a pity if Aussie supremacy were to erode one side of the bargain to such an extent that they began to feel sorry for us instead.

ENGLAND SQUAD

Age Caps

A J Stewart (Surrey) 35 85

(captain)

N Hussain (Essex) 30 34

(vice-captain)

M A Atherton (Lancs) 30 84

M A Butcher (Surrey) 26 14

D G Cork (Derby) 27 25

J P Crawley (Lancs) 26 26

R D B Croft (Glam) 28 14

A R C Fraser (Middx) 33 44

D Gough (Yorks) 27 26

D W Headley (Kent) 28 10

W K Hegg (Lancs) 30 0

B C Hollioake (Surrey) 20 2

A D Mullally (Leics) 29 9

M R Ramprakash (Middx) 28 29

P M Such (Essex) 34 8

G P Thorpe (Surrey) 29 52

A J Tudor (Surrey) 20 0

Coach: D Lloyd

Tour manager: G A Gooch

Physiotherapist: W Morton

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