Cricket: Hard graft for the holy grail

The Ashes: Only the best of teamwork, tactics and talent will end England's long wait for fulfilment

As England embarked this week on their latest daunting quest to return the Ashes to their original, if long-forgotten, home, Graham Gooch warned of the necessity to start well. The tour manager referred specifically to the paramount importance of not losing the First Test in Brisbane because Australia are well-nigh impossible to catch from behind. But he might well have also had in mind that the whole series could all come down to the opening ball.

In the corresponding fixture four years ago, when England's hopes were being borne on a wing and a prayer of remarkably similar structure, Phillip DeFreitas was given the first over and instantly sent down a wide long- hop which Michael Slater gleefully flayed for four. In that moment the painstaking preparations and routinely expressed optimism counted for nothing. England were behind, there was never remotely a way back and a nation's spirits sank with the dent in the boundary board. A repeat would almost certainly have familiar repercussions.

Gooch and the England captain, Alec Stewart, have been sensibly but cautiously upbeat so far in their assessment of England's chances. They know that England must function throughout as a team (there might not be much cavalier about them but all for one and one for all is a credo to which they must fervently adhere). They rightly concede that Australia are the best side in the world but justifiably refuse to bow to any notion of invincibility. Any side can be beaten, there is just a hint that Australia might be beyond their peak and might also assume the Poms are there to be bashed. But nothing Mark Taylor's team have done in the Tests in Pakistan - not only stern practice for the Ashes but a devilishly tough series in its own right - suggests they are either past it or complacent.

England have understandably made much of the team ethos. It has been the driving force behind David Lloyd's tenure as coach, while a modern selection panel, seeking to show that the quality of empathy is strong, have striven, not altogether successfully, for continuity. They have made a point of saying they are sure they have the right personnel for the job in Australia and have done so often enough to persuade listeners they may have doubts.

The most glaring omission from the party of 17 players is Andrew Caddick, the Somerset fast bowler who has Ashes form (mentioned once more by Gooch on arrival in Perth on Friday). This is partly because he took 105 wickets last summer but partly also because Caddick, although on stand-by, appears to have been left out on the grounds that he is deemed a difficult, sometimes aloof character. He may indeed have his singular quirks but if the team is so important it is a rum one which cannot contain or be organised to embrace all manner of personalities. It is supposed to be what makes cricket the greatest of all team games. Caddick took 24 wickets in the Ashes series in England two summers ago and played a crucial part in the pulsating win in the final Test at The Oval.

The strategy for actually winning the Ashes is not yet clear, which may either be because England do not wish yet to show their hand or because they have not yet formed one.

It is likely to involve the left-arm seam of Alan Mullally. Improved he surely is and, if by the amount he is willing to claim, he has the potential to put the Australians in a muddle - left-arm fast medium bowlers with late in-swing do that to any side. England have regained the Ashes in Australia four times in history (1903-04, 1911-12, 1932-33 and 1970- 71) and on two of those occasions, the second and the third, a left-arm swing bowler was instrumental.

In 1911-12, Frank Foster - who, according to his Wisden obituary possessed an easy, natural action, commanded considerable swerve and imparted so much spin to the ball he gathered pace from the pitch - took 32 wickets. In the Bodyline Tour of 1932-33, Bill Voce took 15 wickets.

Of course, they had fairly potent partners. It may be essential for someone to play Sidney Barnes or Harold Larwood to Mullally's Foster/Voce. Too much to expect (or not?) of the tyro Alex Tudor, but it may now be time for Darren Gough to enter all his promised pomp and for Angus Fraser to give one final, first-change hurrah.

Spin - England's lack of it and Australia's plethora of it - is already being discussed as the more likely deciding factor in the series. England have two off-break bowlers, Peter Such and Robert Croft, neither of whom did well last summer. Australia have two leg-break bowlers, Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill, who have both prospered in Test matches, if to admittedly different degrees. But MacGill, while garnering rewards in Pakistan, has already apparently shown that he isn't Warne - and Warne may not be fit.

Stewart has said he would prefer to win with Warne in the Australian side. Good for Alec.

Meanwhile, the rest of England will simply pray that the peroxide blond maestro's shoulder is not given the all-clear until 5 January. As for Croft and Such, they will not win matches, at least not unless they attack more and Croft, in particular can regain that snap he had when first he played for England. It is impossible, sadly, to be confident in either regard.

There is not much, some would have you believe, in the batting. But England's top-order members have not played especially well for each other lately. For them to win, the openers have to deliver (how Michael Atherton deserves to be part of an Ashes-winning team). Nasser Hussain, Alec Stewart, Graham Thorpe and Mark Ramprakash have the feel of a proper middle order but they must ensure there is an anchor. Could Ramprakash be the Steve Waugh of the cadre?

If Stewart thought his captaincy came under pressure against South Africa he knows nothing yet. He would do well to look at his counterpart. When Taylor brought Australia to England last year he was all washed up. Former captains who should have known better were calling for his head after a run of disastrous form. He made a hundred in the First Test, retained the Ashes and has hardly looked back.

During that Edgbaston innings, Geoff Marsh, the side's coach, said it was not in Taylor's nature to say anything in response to the unfairly strident criticism, but he might well save it up for some time in the future. Last week against Pakistan, Taylor made 334 not out, 41 short of the world Test individual score, and then declared the side's innings. It said it all. The side was what mattered. Taylor, more than anybody, may come between England and their heart's desire.

LEFT FIELD: THREE WHO MUST DELIVER FOR ENGLAND

MARK BUTCHER

There is an economy of movement and a phlegmatic air about Mark Butcher's style which has begun to make him a model opening partner for Michael Atherton. He is unflappable, a natural judge of which ball to leave well alone and his century at Headingley against South Africa confirmed his progress. Maybe the temperament comes from his long-standing pastime as a guitarist but he looks to have made that large, unquantifiable leap from good county player to solid Test performer. The left-handedness is an important bonus. No matter what level the cricket, the combination can disrupt a bowler's line and rhythm. Butcher's bowling has come on, too. He has a natural tendency to acquire movement in the air and on long, hot days he is likely to do a serviceable, fill-in job - but that he does right-handed.

GRAHAM THORPE

It was most unfair that England should complete a memorable series win against South Africa without their trustiest middle-order batsman. It is unlikely to happen this winter. Thorpe has a splendid record against Australia (three of his six hundreds, and an average of 49 compared to 40 overall) and he retains the priceless asset of scoring his runs quickly. His summer was ruined by a back injury which eventually required surgery and he was a forlorn, pained figure as he scored nought in each of his last three Test innings. Thorpe is not a left-hander in the elegant mould, being perhaps somewhere between Edrich and Gower, but he is a formidably acquisitive opponent who is capable of getting up Australia's pipe, and with no other middle-order lefties around England will need him back to form quickly.

ALAN MULLALLY

Although he was a regular member of the squad last season, Alan Mullally never made the side. On reflection, that might have been selectorial forethought, not wishing to show the Aussies their remodelled left-armer (though perhaps that was risking things a bit with the South Africans to beat). There is no question that Mullally is a much-improved bowler from the one who first played for England in 1996 and grew noticeably less effective over nine Tests. He is now slightly quicker, bowls closer to the stumps and swings the ball appreciably more and later. While he is hardly a secret weapon and England's recent tradition of producing left-arm seamers is inauspicious, he may be the nearest thing to a bowling strategy they have. Expect him to play and expect him to disturb the opposition.

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