Cricket: England in need of cold steel to avoid capitulation: A rekindling of fighting spirit is the route to Test series salvation as Gooch's beaten band strive to match Australia's combative nature

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The Independent Online
IT IS not often that you can wave goodbye to a Test series with five matches still to play, but there are precious few grounds for believing that Old Trafford will not be the first pebble in an avalanche. Even allowing for the fact that it is not in a bookmaker's nature to give money away, the latest quote of 10-1 against England regaining the Ashes almost qualifies them as dangerous optimists.

One of the more symbolic sights during the first Test was that of Graham Gooch applying his shoulder to the Stretford End sightscreen. He could no more get it moving than he could his team, and it brought to mind the verbal illustration he employed to sum up the unequal nature of the contest when England were last getting duffed up by Australia on their 1990-91 tour. A fart competing with thunder, was Gooch's cri de coeur.

Part of the reason for the sightscreen's refusal to budge was the fact that it was weighted down with the technological paraphernalia required to flash up advertisements. The Test and County Cricket Board is more adept at making money than manufacturing a successful team, otherwise they would not have voted against Zimbabwe's elevation to Test playing status last year. Zimbabwe were identified as a team not easily associated with a nice little earner rather than the one side England might be able to beat, although in Harare, they are probably saying much the same about England.

The main problem with England has as much to do with amnesia as ability. Gooch, who has a longer memory than most, is fond of saying that winning becomes a habit, but so too does losing, and England are currently better at that than any other Test-playing nation.

Even more worryingly, they do not so much lose, as get the pants beaten off them, to the extent that, to the more cynical eye, a margin of 179 runs at Old Trafford could almost be regarded as the start of a spectacular renaissance. Since their tour to Australia in 1986-87, when they won all three tournaments they took part in, England's 'best' defeat against Australia is six wickets, and their worst, an innings and 180 runs.

Furthermore, their last six consecutive Tests have all ended with the opposition barely having to climb out of the hammock, much less expend any significant perspiration. Pakistan: 10 wickets; India: eight wickets, an innings and 22 runs, and an innings and 15; Sri Lanka: five wickets; and now Australia, 179 runs.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Old Trafford was the fact that Australia's Craig McDermott, widely touted as the one significant difference between the sides, did not take a single wicket. England were despatched by a combination of Merv Hughes and Shane Warne, and far from learning from their winter experience on the sub-continent, the same top six batsmen had far less difficulty reading Merv's lips than they did Warne's leg spin.

Mind you, Warne is no shrinking violet when it comes to expressive behaviour on the field, and while one of the least attractive aspects of Australian cricket is that their umpires wear earplugs as a matter of course, their undiluted aggression - particularly from Hughes - was once more a significant factor in England's defeat.

There are a number of reasons advanced for this noticeably more cut- throat approach, not least the fact that the first 11 potential cricketers to land in Australia were selected by the chief prosecutor at venues such as Bow Street Magistrates' Court.

Sheffield Shield cricket is thought of as being much more competitive than the County Championship, although that too is full of negative matches in front of non-existent crowds on sterile pitches. The answer probably has more to do with the fact that there are far fewer players who earn a reasonable full-time professional living over there than there are here, where ordinary cricketers can potter happily along towards a nice benefit after 10 years.

The less jobs there are available, the keener will be the competition and another factor that cannot be entirely rule out is that Australians have a keener sense of national identity. This is often taken to ludicrous extremes, with breakfast cereal advertisements featuring gap-toothed five- year-olds lisping things like 'I love Australia, and I love my Cornflakes', but it certainly seems to produce a shedding-blood-for-the-flag effect. In England, the sense of commitment may be no less strong, but it can be slightly hard to get fired up for your country when someone in a saloon bar is sure to be saying: 'Bloody Hick, ship him back to Zimbabwe'.

Allan Border's reply when the umpires asked him if they wanted to recall Gooch when he was penalised for handball at Old Trafford was doubtless a slighty stronger negative than: 'All things considered, I'd rather not if you don't mind,' and for all the selectorial talk about England having the talent to compete this summer, a bit more cold steel is what is needed.

One of the more ridiculous sights at Old Trafford was that of Chris Lewis playing an expansive fresh-air shot at a short, wide, long hop when England were battling to save the game, and if it did not bring the same expression to Gooch's face as the first ball from Warne did to Gatting's, then it should have done.

The most absurd sight of all, however, will be with us all summer - a bunch of English cricketers glaring fiercely out from an advertising poster with the message: 'We're After Your Bails, Australia'. Full marks to the marketing men, who have worked out that England's best chance is if Border and his troops all die laughing.