Cricket: It's very hard to nobble champions

View from Down Under
Click to follow
The Independent Online
David Graveney's concurrence that his batsmen shouldn't have to fight Shane Warne on the "beach" at Headingley was less than Churchillian, but perfectly reasonable. Three-day massacres are never nice, and certainly not good for cricket.

I can tell you another story about a chairman of Test selectors and a peculiar cricket pitch. In 1993 Australia and the West Indies were one- all with one Test to play and, in one of those honest, but naive pieces of programming for which the Australian Cricket Board is famous, it had nominated the WACA in Perth as the venue for what had become the Frank Worrell Trophy decider.

Conscientious fans know the WACA as home, sweet home for Dennis Lillee, Bob Massie, Terry Alderman and, until he surprisingly thought there could be a greener pasture, Ireland and Kent's own Martin McCague. If new-ball bowlers believe in utopia, the WACA is it, fast, bouncy and breezy. Australia's selection supremo at the time was Laurie Sawle and, on Fifth Test eve when he discovered the pitch, having finally navigated his way there on the assumption that because a man he recognised as the groundsman was sitting on a roller moving backwards and forwards in the centre of the oval, then beneath man and machine was most likely to be the Test pitch.

By that you will have gleaned the pitch was as grassy as the outfield. There is no official record of what Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Ian Bishop said when they viewed Test cricket's replica of a lawn tennis court, but I am able to tell you what Sawle said.

He strolled up to the groundsman, and with a gentle wave of his hand in the general direction of mid-pitch he enquired: "Where are you going to put the net?" A half-smart groundsman would have said: "Between the West Indian quicks and the Australian batsmen!" A smart groundsman would have set his mower lower: this chap was neither. Ambrose got nine wickets for about 70, won the Man of the Match, and the Test was over in two and a bit days, Australian beaten by an innings. And Cricket Board revenue was massacred.

In 1997, when the teams met again, there was a new groundsman at the WACA. It was no surprise when he produced a dry pitch with no grass, but it also had lots of cracks, one of which was as wide and as ugly as some of those that appear in California when the San Andreas fault gets jumpy. Ambrose got seven wickets, won the Man of the Match. Australia lost again, but this time only by 10 wickets and, although the Test went slightly longer, the bottom line was another bleat for the red ink from the Cricket Board accountant.

All of which proves that class and character will generally carry the day, no matter what the pitch conditions. It's very, very hard to nobble champions. And, so it has been in this Headingley Test. England, as they did at Old Trafford, have shown themselves to be one cricketing class below this Australian outfit with a few emerging champions. And where is England's character?

This pitch, with its bit of grass, was made to measure for England's bowlers. Yet two rookie batsmen, Matthew Elliott and Rick Ponting, were able to smash a century stand in 85 minutes after Australia had been reduced to 50 for 4, two of those wickets the Waughs. And another hundred after that.

For England, that is alarming. They lost control of the game at precisely the moment they should have been parcelling it up. Which is what they did with the bat, too. The batsmen from whom the most determined commitment was expected, the generals, Mike Atherton, Alec Stewart and Graham Thorpe, were all out in...well, I hesitate to use the "soft" word because Mark Waugh and Shane Warne have been criticised for it, but so far it seems to sum up the trio's performance perfectly.

Thorpe's erratic shot selection, then his unfathomable miss at first slip off the dolly catch offered by Elliott, the moment upon which this Test may yet turn, prompted a passing thought that he might have been doing a spot of time-travel in the Sojourner on Mars.

One should never dwell too long on bad luck and dropped catches but Thorpe has a bad habit of putting down sitters, yet Atherton persists with him in a spot where Aussie catain Mark Taylor, despite his personal distractions, seems to hang on to just about everything.

All of that must be tearing at England's mutual processes. Which, of course, was what the pitch outburst was really all about. Nobody takes Australia's high dudgeon seriously. How could you when manager Alan Crompton's only complaint was the fact that England's chairman of selectors appeared to have played some part in it.

What's Crompton saying? It's OK for anyone else to order a last-minute pitch switch? He's not that silly. This was just a gentle "psych" job by the Australian team management to stir the rottweiler in their own players and to get England on the defensive. It's common knowledge; there's no flies on the Aussies.