Cricket: England schooled in A grade game

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It is only eight years since an England cricket team came to Australia and won all three competitions placed in front of them, but people are now beginning to wonder whether it was all an elaborate hoax. Could it be (as has been claimed about the American moon landing) that the 1986-87 tour was actually played out by actors on a studio set at Pinewood or Elstree, and released as a propaganda exercise to maintain government popularity and the nation's morale?

England yesterday flew to Melbourne, manfully resisting the urge to transfer to the international terminal for a connecting flight to Heathrow, and were today attempting to restore some self-esteem in a World Series Cup qualifier against Australia's A side under the MCG floodlights.

On Sunday, Australia A were narrowly beaten by their seniors in Adelaide, in a match that failed to narrow the ever-closing gap between the number of Test matches played (1,282) and one-day internationals. Despite giving Test matches a 95-year start, theone-day international total is now up to 955.

The reason that it is not 956, nor, after today's game, 957, is that the International Cricket Council has declined to recognise Australia A as a legitimate international team. Cynics might point out that this criterion can now be applied to England, andthat the remainder of this winter's Test series should be recorded under the heading of exhibition games involving a side not recognised as first-class.

The two weekend defeats by the Australian Cricket Academy, and, more particularly, the wretched manner of them, suggests that England would be better employed for the rest of this tour hiring a classroom on the Academy campus, and attending a series of lectures for beginners. We can start with a slide show. Lesson one: this is called a bat.

In the next week or so, the chief executive of the Test and County Cricket Board, Alan Smith, will be arriving in Australia. It is mainly the customary PR exercise, but Smith has also been instructed to go to Adelaide and investigate the possibilities

of England adopting something along similar lines to the Australian Academy.

The Academy was set up after Australia's own Test team was identified as hopeless after Gatting's 1986-87 tour, but it will be a surprise if Smith concludes that the absence of this kind of cricketing finishing school in England is anything other than a smokescreen for England's distressingly impoverished international performances.

The system works very well in Australia because of the nature of the game here - largely non-social, even at the grassroots level, containing far fewer full-time professionals, and far fewer first-class games. England should already possess (as Keith Fletcher, the team manager, bemoaned after the two weekend defeats) 18 centres of excellence, and it ought to be a relatively simple job for the 18 counties to nourish and promote the youthful talent inside their respective orbits.

The reason they do not, is that the emphasis revolves almost exclusively around playing, rather than learning, and fitting in as many competitions as possible. As a result, there is less evidence of "centres of excellence" than of repositories of rubbish.

The counties are too tied up in their own self-interest to change the system, and, as per usual, there was not a hint of moving to change the status quo at their recent winter meeting. We should perhaps be grateful that they did not vote for half a dozenextra Benson and Hedges zonal matches.

The difference between the development of young Australian players and their English counterparts is largely one of competitiveness and aggression. John Crawley, at 24, is widely regarded as the best English batsman of his age since Graham Gooch, but he looks wet behind the ears next to the likes of two of Australia's most promising 19 year olds, Ricky Ponting and Brad Hodge, neither of whom can yet get a place in Australia's A side.

Australian youngsters are brought up not so much with respect for reputations, as contempt for them, and by no means the least illuminating aspect of England's lost weekend in Sydney, was the sight of Brian Campbell, a makeshift opening batsman, belting

a four in Angus Fraser's opening over from a good five yards down the pitch.

While English cricket plunges into another protracted bout of soul searching, the extent of the Australians' anxiety stretches not much further than how to keep the shine on their balls. The white one used for England's first World Series match against Australia at the SCG was virtually invisible in the closing overs, and the yellow one being experimented with in this week's Sheffield Shield day-nighter, also at the SCG, became so grubby and hard to pick up that the New South Wales captain, Steve Waugh,declined to take a new one.

Australia have just started to play first-class games under lights in a bid to increase attendances even smaller than the County Championship attracts in England. However, no one is turning up, proving that in Australia, the instant thrill is still the thing. Only in England does Test cricket sell out months in advance...but the way things are going, for how much longer?