Cricket: Forget the barbs, we'll stick to the middle way

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The Independent Online
WHEN England hit town the Australians like nothing better than getting straight into us. No sooner had we left Perth with the words of Justin Langer ringing in our ears than we arrived in Adelaide to discover that Greg Chappell was entering the fray.

Langer played at Middlesex last season and I was initially surprised by his harsh comments about England's declining to chase a target against his side, Western Australia. Chappell has branded us as a team without much flair. It is good to know that the phoney war is continuing. It is obviously part of a deliberate policy to subject us to a bombardment of such comments and we are noting them all.

England might have done better against WA but there were still many positive aspects to the game. The WACA pitch is a one-off, like nothing in England and perhaps the fastest in the world. Playing on it so early in the tour gave us an invaluable work-out for the Second Test there.

It was extremely hard and quick and allowed the bowlers no lateral movement at all. The ball grew soft early and batsmen who are capable pullers and cutters can play off the back foot. It is a pitch which has different requirements from to those to which we are accustomed. On the bowling front, Alan Mullally swung the ball and Darren Gough found a steady rhythm. Gus Fraser had a tough time of it but do not be too worried about that - other pitches will suit him more. Most of the batsmen spent some time at the crease, and it's in the middle where it's important. Nets can do so much but it is during matches that you begin to put into practice your strategy.

When Langer set England a target after declaring in the second innings it was not our immediate intention to play for the draw, but it would have been reckless to go for a win straightaway. We had only five specialist batsmen and one of those, Mark Butcher, had several stitches in his face after ducking into a short ball which squeezed through the visor on his helmet. That's how quick the pitch is - one slight misjudgement, (which is all it was, no more) and a batsman can be surprised.

By chasing the runs all the way through we might easily have put needless pressure on our tail, getting them to take chances by sweeping and improvising, which we don't want them to do at this stage. When John Crawley was out soon after tea on the last day it would have been silly to get out trying for quick runs. We would not throw away Test matches like that and it is important to remember that this was our first four-day game. Time in the middle could not be over-rated, whatever Justin said.

WA, however, are a good example of the strength in depth of Australian cricket. They had five international players out, yet they were still superbly competitive. A couple of rookie middle-order batsmen played with a really keen, well-honed approach. Matt Nicholson, the bowler who took seven wickets in the first innings, had been out of the game for 18 months with chronic fatigue syndrome but looked a real prospect: quick and on target. Mind you, he bowled 38 overs at us, so no wonder he had chronic fatigue syndrome.

Australia's young players know how hard it is to get in the team, they know they have to be spot on from one match to the next. Their 21-year- olds are comparable to those of Middlesex who made their debuts last season: English players have the talent but they must be a touch more professional in their approach.

Where we realise we must improve is in our catching - we put down several chances in the WA match. Different light, different pace off the pitch had something to do with it but the point is very much that that we have to get it right for the Tests. We know we have to play constantly as a unit in every session because the match can slip away in that time.

Our arrival in Adelaide not only coincided with Greg Chappell's observations but also brought back several memories. Awaiting me in the hotel was a fax from somebody who described himself as the fastest bowler I ever faced. It was Carl Maynard who used to bowl bouncers at me when we played in Middlesex Under-11s together, was forced to give up the game with a bad back and is now living over here.

I first came to Adelaide 11 years ago with the England Under-19 team in the first World Cup. We reached the semi-final and played against Australia, whose attack was opened by a gangly left-arm fast bowler who swung it. He also got me out if I remember correctly. His name was Alan Mullally.

The last time I was here was four years ago when I was called up from the A tour to join the senior squad because of injuries. I did not play in the Fourth Test in Adelaide but I did arrive in time to see Mike Gatting spend an eternity on 99 before finally getting his century. There's a notice in the Adelaide dressing room saying M W Gatting was the last Englishman here. We must try to update that.