Cricket: Gough's grit presents a genuine threat

View from Down Under
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The Independent Online
Mark Taylor's Australians looked as rusty as an old tick gate on the central Australian salt pan. That is not to undermine in any way England's rousing start to the Texaco series, rather to offer a searching perspective on the early days of Australia's fourth consecutive Ashes defence.

Taylor would protest otherwise, but the most realistic judg-ement on Australia's mindset in the Texaco is this: it is heaven-sent practice, now desperately needed by a team most of whose members have never seen anything like the deviously damp conditions which have bogged them down early in the tour.

The batsmen are worryingly underdone. After Northampton, where Australia almost battled out their 50 overs, the coach Geoff Marsh would have been heartened, and no doubt a verbal pat on the back with appropriate coaching cliches extolling the virtues of splice-sitting and crease occupation was delivered.

The woeful wobbly at Worcester would have disheartened him. After four matches only two of his men had raised their bats to acknowledge the half- century milestone, Taylor and Michael Slater. The bookmakers out here were offering 1,000-1 about that - just a month ago neither of them was in the winning Australian one-day line-up in South Africa.

The quicker bowlers looked well short of a gallop, struggling to find the fullish length that is best for sideways movement on pitches with spice. If Marsh could lay his hands on a few videos of Alec Bedser, Derek Shackleton and Len Coldwell, "t'old pros", they might offer some evidence of how the masters of fast medium could stitch up batsmen.

Raw-boned and bold the Aussies may be, but an implant of finesse would be useful. Young Jason Gillespie was disappointingly short at Headingley and how a bowler who measures his run with a tape measure can still bowl no-balls is confusing. We will know by Lord's if he is a quick learner.

No happiness at Headingley either for Shane Warne, who might have thought he was bowling in a fridge, his rejuvenated spinning finger a little ice block. His first half-dozen overs were nonsense, and had frustration writ large upon them.

He was possibly surprised to be booed even before he'd bowled his first ball and might reasonably have expected all of that was behind him once he left South Africa. Some days the hecklers can get to him, no doubt about it. His last four overs were notable for their determination and, apart from a rogue flipper or two, were promising examples of what we all know he can do.

Taylor maintains the rain-checked build-up is of no real concern, that it is stretching credibility to think his players will not quickly pick up the big stick with which they clobbered South Africa. This is either blind determination not to offer any excuse for stuttering form or it is foolhardy generosity to the programmers.

Australia ended their South African tour with seven one-day matches and yesterday at The Oval they played their fifth in England. A dozen slogathons in a row. Where is the substance in all that, the gutsy cricket?

The programme says it will be coming soon to a ground near you. In the form of the Tetley Challenge - unless of course the long-range forecasters are right and there are 30 days of rain on the way to soften pitches and bend the confidence and character of the Aussies.

Taylor's hopes for a form kick-start have been compromised by the rain factor - bone-dry summers in India, Australia and South Africa are incompatible with a sploshy England. The Texaco simply creates selection confusion for the Australians because Mark Waugh, a Test middle-order player, turns out as an opener and in the middle is Michael Slater, a natural Test opener. The most intriguing of the batting-order shuffles is the appearance of the new vice-captain Steve Waugh at No 3 - is it a pointer to the Tests?

He hasn't batted that high in Tests since 1992 against the West Indies in Australia. There is an element of risk in such a manoeuvre because Waugh has been so successful at No 5, but it would expand the selection options for the rest of the order. The clue of any switch will be in the batting orders in the Tetley matches.

Meanwhile, England are on the boil. Have an England team ever fielded on the ground as well as they did at Headingley? Slick to the ball, sliding and throwing, freakish catching. There was a hint of scrappiness here and there, and with the ball and bat, but nothing to alter the judgement, "very professional". Can they maintain it over five days in a Test?

Down here we like Darren Gough, a fast bowler with a friendly face and, we think, a heart beneath his rangy chest that is as broad as his backside. His ornamental right wrist might be flogging watches, but at Headingley his reverse swinging yorkers, especially to Slater and Blewett, were the sales pitch of a smart fast bowler. He is a genuine threat to the Australians, at both ends of the innings.

Two other aspects of England's performance caught the eye. Robert Croft: can he exploit Australia's not-too-happy history against off-spin? Jim Laker's 19-wicket haul at Old Trafford in 1956 was our worst nightmare until Ian Botham did the unthinkable to us at Headingley in 1981. Croft's clever pace change and deceptive top-spinner will test our best.

And the caps ... England players all wearing the same caps. Instead of looking like a bunch of yahoos on their way to a fancy dress party they looked like a team of cricketers. It's been a while, you'd probably agree.