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Cricket: England unable to find answers

IF IT was intended as a diversion from the misery so far experienced in Australia, the naming of England's 16-man one-day squad for the Carlton United Breweries series, despite two new names and the removal of some old ones, did nothing to lift the stygian gloom. One-day cricket may be an important aspect of the game, but success at it is like enjoying a fizzy can of pop as compared to vintage Krug - the bubbles may be there but the complexity and depth are not.

The sense of despondency was still prevalent as the team flew to Canberra, a journey that required two flights and, when timed from door to door, took nearly seven hours. Collective malaise can easily take over in such conditions and preventing that can be a full-time job for those involved with the team, such as the team manager, Graham Gooch.

"We're pretty disappointed," admitted Gooch. "But while there is no disgrace in being outplayed, we've been on the losing end a good few times. Defeat is a part of the game, but it's not one to accept easily.

"What the players have got to do with four games left is to regroup and show the people of Australia they can play. It won't be easy, the next two games will be tough, but we have to play good cricket in order to get us in the right frame of mind for the Melbourne Test.

"The Ashes might have gone, but we've still got the series to play for. The players don't want to leave these shores without proving they can play cricket."

Gooch, who intends to speak to the whole team when he gets a moment (they were guests of the Prime Minister yesterday and have a High Commission function tonight), knows what it is like to lose in Australia.

"If you lose, the Aussies give you funny looks all the time," said Gooch, who could have mentioned the gloating in the media, but did not. "They really like winners over here whether it is their own side or the opposition."

One of the conundrums that most niggles people, though, is why England, who can compete and even beat sides who give Australia a run for their money, save their worst cricket for the old enemy? Considering that three- quarters of the Australian bowling attack England kept capitulating to was fairly inexperienced, no one appears to have a definitive explanation.

"It's true, we don't seem to play well against them," said Gooch. "Our main problem, is we haven't put competitive totals on the board. Perhaps they don't allow you to play. Certainly, we've been unable to exert any pressure on them in any of the three Tests."

Solutions are not easy and, despite the better coaching and management structure now in place around the team, Gooch feels that an English cricket side will not beat the best teams on a regular basis, until changes are made at county level.

"We basically need a tough, competitive domestic system that breeds and hones talent long before it reaches the Test arena. Young players need to be given a harder start in life."

He is not convinced about two divisions, but is willing to wait and see. He is, however, in favour of change, but only because the current system he played in, and enjoyed, is not producing the cricketers we want. "Only the best players should play county cricket."

While he skirted around the question of whether the gap between Test and county cricket is greater now, there is no denying that the era which allowed two overseas players per team, the majority of them highly motivated, was far more competitive than it is now, despite the incorporation of that other panacea turned placebo: four-day cricket.

Of course, one-day cricket is another matter and of those left out of the 23-man squad picked for the Brisbane Test, the names of Michael Atherton and Angus Fraser will probably cause the biggest raised eyebrow.

Apparently, the selectors feel both players need rest, though what has tired Fraser out recently is anyone's guess. Mind you, the hectic itinerary and huge amount of flying were probably a consideration when it came to Atherton, despite the improvement to his back.

Graham Gooch, this time wearing his selector's hat, was at pains to explain that Fraser and Atherton had not been ruled out for the World Cup in England next May, when conditions are likely to suit them better. "They'll definitely be in our thoughts," said Gooch.

This squad is probably the last chance to try out a few "unknowns" before 28 February, the closing date for naming World Cup squads. By then 19 players (including four reserves), have to be named, a number that gets reduced to 15 at the end of March.

As first-timers, Vince Wells and Mark Alleyne owe their chance to the fact that both are top-order batsmen who can bowl. Their inexperience will be countered by players like Neil Fairbrother, whose expertise at scoring quickly during the middle overs, was something England lacked last summer when they were beaten by South Africa and Sri Lanka.

Nasser Hussain, not included in the preliminary squad a month ago, returns at the expense of Graham Thorpe, who is seeing a specialist about his back. John Crawley, hopelessly out of form in the Tests, stays as Stewart's reserve wicketkeeper.

Like Fairbrother, Thorpe is brilliant at farming the middle overs, when the run-rate needs to be upped. Unfortunately, unless he plays towards the fag end of the England A tour to Zimbabwe and South Africa, he will have no cricket in which to prove his fitness before the squads have to be named.



England's party of 16 for next month's one-day series against Australia and Sri Lanka

A J Stewart (capt and wkt, Surrey)

M W Alleyne (Gloucestershire)

J P Crawley (Lancashire)

R D B Croft (Glamorgan)

M A Ealham (Kent)

N H Fairbrother (Lancashire)

A F Giles (Warwickshire)

D Gough (Yorkshire)

D W Headley (Kent)

G A Hick (Worcestershire)

A H Hollioake (Surrey)

B C Hollioake (Surrey)

N Hussain (Essex)

N V Knight (Warwickshire)

A D Mullally (Leicestershire)

V J Wells (Leicestershire)