Cricket: England lacking strength of mind

Australia 391 & 150-1 England 227; Third Test: All-too-familiar collapse points to a gulf in mental fortitude, rather than talent, between the two teams
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CONDITIONS HAVE become depressingly normal again in Adelaide, and after the heat came the cold discomfort of an England batting collapse. Statistics can sometimes be misleading, but the loss of seven wickets in 64 minutes before lunch is one so damning that no amount of spin, particularly if it comes from a leggie, is going to able to disguise it.

As at Perth the extra batsman has yet to prove his worth and this time it was extravagant turn, mainly from the wrist spinner Stuart MacGill, who took 4 for 53, that did the damage. Indeed, only Nasser Hussain, left unbeaten on 89, Mark Ramprakash, who scored a fluent 61, and Michael Atherton who made 41 on Saturday, got into double figures.

The rest were a sorry agglomeration of noughts and crosses (an indication of appalling shot selection) and further proof that county cricket is not much of a breeding ground when it comes to robust characters.

The tendency of England's batting to collapse is not new. The performances of the last five batsmen have been particularly dire and during the first Test in Brisbane, the final four wickets fell for 15 runs.

Perth was worse still with just 31 runs in the first innings and 2 in the second. Here they mustered 17 in their first innings, a collapse that once again left a batsman, in this case Hussain, stranded without support.

Reasons, if you accept that these particular players are not entirely hapless, are more difficult to pin down. When it comes the practice and physical preparation, Graham Gooch is the kind of man who leaves no stone unturned. England's bowlers have diligently practised their batting on this tour.

Mind you, on evidence from the middle the only thing that has been proved is the converse of the usual adage: that practice makes perfect. The same can also be applied to their catching, which has been equally poor.

Perhaps that is the problem. Over-practice highlights the importance of the activity to the extent that failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As far as catching goes, relaxed hands and alert minds are the key, something the quick-fire multiple catch sessions now in vogue do not encourage.

What is really lacking however - a flaw clearly illustrated by the manner in which England's batting collapses have happened - is mental fibre, an observation Gooch himself made as England captain after his team had lost to Australia at Old Trafford in 1993.

Once again, the system is at fault. County cricket, with its surfeit of matches - something that two divisions does nothing to redress - is tough, but only on the body.

As a consequence and because of the sheer volume of cricket played, the mind looks to take short cuts and players faced with an unpromising situation rarely waste either the time or energy trying to dig themselves out of it. They know another game, and with it another opportunity to do well, will be along soon.

In sport bad habits tend to be exploited and the higher you climb the more you are exposed. England's lower order, and most of its middle too, have been busy proving that with embarrassing regularity. Contrast this with the way Justin Langer and Michael Slater, the latter eschewing his normally dashing strokeplay, ground England out of the match. Australia are single-minded, England are absent-minded.

The most frustrating aspect, particularly after England had one or two dubious decisions the day before, was that Hussain and Ramprakash started the morning well.

Once dubbed the "Tantrum Twins" due to the uncontrollable fire in their bellies, the pair are rapidly becoming England's toughest competitors. They also appear well-equipped for Test cricket, with both their techniques and powers of concentration standing up well to the intensive scrutiny under which Australia's bowlers put them. In fact the hundred partnership they shared was about the only time in three days that England have looked on a par with their opponents.

Ramprakash, perhaps sensing that the ball would spin even more in the second innings, was friskier than usual and he twice clobbered Colin Miller's off spin for six. He was more circumspect against MacGill, who was turning it sharply, and not only out of the footholes.

Hussain was more watchful, though he expended just as much skill being so. His great strength is that when he gets a bad ball it is invariably put away, which is more important than it sounds against a miserly attack like Australia's. With Graham Thorpe having now gone home, Hussain has looked England's best batsman by some margin.

Ironically, on a day when the amount of spin being extracted by MacGill caused eyebrows to be raised, it was pace that brought the fatal breakthrough. Despite a back seat role, Glenn McGrath must never be underestimated and the extra bounce he got with the old ball when he banged one in at Ramprakash clearly surprised the batsman; a stylish two-hour stay was ended tamely as he guided the ball to Mark Waugh at second slip.

His tail up, McGrath soon added John Crawley to his tally, knocking back the batsman's off stump with a ball that had just a hint of reverse inswing to it.

Crawley, whose only boundary had seen England past the follow-on target, should not be blamed and had his form at home been as bad as it has out here, he would never have been picked. Once again his footwork was so out of kilter that you wonder whether the haymaker he got in Cairns damaged his middle ear as well as his confidence.

At 195 for 5, the stage was set for Graeme Hick to prove to his doubters that he is a Test player of substance. But if he began confidently, twice swatting MacGill to the midwicket fence for four, a beautifully pitched leg-break that took the edge ruined the illusion. Once again, when runs would have really counted, Hick failed to deliver.

After that England's tail, their mugshots already flashed up on the giant screen along with their appalling record, came and went quietly, leaving Hussain to contemplate the futility of his own staunch efforts.

Speaking after the close of play, Hussain did not blame the tail, a public gesture that was probably far more charitable than his private thoughts at the time.

"We played the extra batsmen here, so it is up to the top seven to score the runs. You can't blame the tail; we've got to take the responsibility. Ramps and I had a good hour and then we had a bad hour. If we had the answer as to why that was, it wouldn't be happening."