Cricket: Honour has been salvaged, but hard work starts here

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The Independent Online
IT WAS never realistic to have expected an England victory on this fourth morning. The pitch was turning square, Australia had three excellent spinners, including two leg spinners, and England would have needed one, if not two, batsmen to have played as Michael Slater had done so memorably on Sunday unless Australia were to have thrown it away, but that was not an option worth considering.

Like Melbourne before it, this was a superb game of cricket and in the past 10 days in Australia, the cause of Test cricket has received a welcome and important boost. After playing with a sad hopelessness for three Test matches, England suddenly picked themselves up and began to sort out their thinking.

The side acquired an intensity about its performance, a mental toughness and a surprising degree of self-belief considering what had gone on before. The Australians found, most unexpectedly, that they had to roll up their sleeves, mark out their long runs and get down to it. For three days in Melbourne and four at the Sydney Cricket Ground, England fought like tigers.

In the end, they were unable to win but had salvaged a great deal of honour. The danger is now that those in charge will be tempted to sit back and to congratulate themselves on a job well done without realising that this is where the hard work has to begin.

They will rue their luck. Alec Stewart lost all five tosses and had they won this last one in Sydney they would have been even harder to beat. Then there was the run out of Michael Slater, which the third umpire unreasonably shirked when the batsman had made 35 of his eventual 123 and Dean Headley had thrown his stumps down from long-on.

One can only lodge a protest, too, against a pitch on which the winning of the toss provided a passport to victory, and it was impossible to escape this conclusion at the SCG. England did not help themselves by choosing the wrong side. There had to be a second spinner.

Of course, Phil Tufnell would have been ideal and bowled well, but after he had been outlawed by the selectors when the party was chosen, either leg spinner - Ian Salisbury, who is in Sydney, or possibly the left-arm spinner, Ashley Giles, with the one-day squad - should have been drafted in. The tour selectors showed a remarkable lack of understanding and imagination.

Why too, was Alex Tudor picked and, after bowling five most respectable overs for eight runs in Australia's second innings, dispensed with for good? And why Tudor, who was seriously short of recent bowling, and not Alan Mullally, whose control had been so admirable in Melbourne? I would give anything to know what goes on in the minds of the brains trust which presides over England's cricket in the dressing-room.

We know they have never heard about the importance of playing for singles as an integral part of the process of building a big score, because the batsmen themselves are clearly unaware of it, even though they could have picked up a tip or two from the Waughs.

Some of the field placings, particularly for the off-spin of Peter Such, were surprising to say the least. One can only wonder if these things are ever discussed behind the scenes and what all those managers and coaches and support personnel are up to.

But by the end England had shown that the players themselves were learning. The batsmen may not have shown quite the singleness of purpose of the Waughs, who are both remarkable cricketers. The bowlers, on the other hand, are definitely getting there. In these last two games they gave nothing away: they attacked the batsmen all the time and looked distinctly Australian in their approach.

Of no one is this more true than Darren Gough and Headley. Gough has been unlucky with dropped catches and might have had eight more wickets, although he still does not blast out the first three in the order as often as he should. Headley's transformation in the last two Tests was most impressive. He has stopped bowling no-balls (and England's bowling coach, Bob Cottam, must take the credit for that), his control has been excellent and his overall hostility remarkable.

In the past two matches the fielders have been holding their catches. If they had done so earlier in the tour, they might tonight be in possession of the new glass replica of the Ashes which will rest on Australia's sideboard. It is impossible to explain why England have been unable to look like a competitive outfit in Australia until the chance of regaining the Ashes had already gone.

One is not being churlish raising these points of criticism but this England side has at last shown that they have some material to work with, which was hardly the case after being two Tests down following Adelaide.

Now, after these last two matches, everyone is feeling better but this is no reason to celebrate. What has happened is a beginning and not an end, and there is a huge amount of work which remains to be done.

The most urgent requirement is for those in charge of England to be certain that they have the right people giving off the right signals inside the dressing room. The powers-that-be must not be ashamed to steal Australia's clothes because they, more than any other team in world, seem to know exactly where they are heading and have the results to prove it.