Cricket: Law lays in to system

Iain Fletcher hears an Australian absentee criticise the English game
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ASK an unbiased Aussie - if there is there such a creature - to predict the winning margin in the First Test at Edgbaston and he will probably prefix the number of runs with "an innings and...".

The coming series between England and Australia appears to be just such a mismatch. While England were scrapping over the wooden spoon with Zimbabwe and New Zealand last winter, Australia were defeating the formidable South Africans and the improving if somewhat erratic West Indies.

So, is there any hope for England this Ashes summer? "No, none at all," asserts Stuart Law who, having narrowly missed selection for the Australian tour party, has returned to Essex, with the intention of improving on last year's 1,545 first-class runs. "We could pick three different sides and they would all beat England," he said. Law is convinced of this, and, not wishing to appear traitorous, on recent form it is difficult to disagree.

Law has played one Test, against Sri Lanka back in 1995 when he scored an undefeated 54 in his only innings, and was "just one of 25 they could have picked".

Yet the quality of his batting was summed up last week by Henry Blofeld, who wrote of him: "He is a beautiful and unhurried strokemaker with a lovely, easy, upright method and if England's selectors could find as good a player among those they have to choose from, they would hardly be able to believe their luck." This begs the question: just how good are those who have made the tour?

Is Australia overloaded with talent compared to England? Or is the much- maligned structure of the English game responsible for the low position England holds in world cricket?

The 28-year-old Law believes that the county system is predominantly to blame, with too much cricket being played. "There is plenty of talent in England," he said, "but it doesn't develop as well as back home because the grind of constant cricket means that many of the games are played in a comfort zone. Players aren't always being pushed to perform at their peak. Cricket in Australia is far more focused and intense because we play fewer games. Everyone is up for it, whereas in England the players are often knackered and praying for rain."

Seventeen Championship matches, 17 Sunday League games, at least one tourist match and two different one-day knockout cups do place a massive workload on English players. In comparison, states in Australia play only 10 first-class games and there is a single one-day competition.

Law cities the difference in the build-up to a county match in England and its equivalent in Australia as a reason for the gulf between the two national sides. "Before a state match at home we will prepare for at least a week, if not two. Every game is treated like a Test match. To the players they are an event, each has a special significance and the effort put in reflects this.

"Over here there is the attitude that it is just another game of cricket. This is because the players are constantly playing. Players slip into a routine rather than trying to raise themselves. A quick bowler might charge in for a couple of overs, but often he is looking to pace himself for the next month's cricket. Batsmen are happy with 30 or 40 because they don't have to wait long for their next hit.

"Every player who plays in a Shield match is fit, fresh and hungry. Could that be said about English players?" Law asked. Probably not. "I think England needs a system where the top players are tested more. At the moment many players cruise. Cricket is a selfish game but the system at present breeds players who play for themselves and their careers."

And what of Mark Waugh's recent comment that English players would not "die for their country"? "I think he's absolutely right," said Law, "Look at the South Africans. They play as a single unit and are so desperate to perform for their country. England just don't give off that feeling of complete pride.

"When you enter the Aussie dressing-room, you are made to feel special. You want to do well personally, but you really feel you are playing for the whole of Australia. Nasser [Hussain] is very passionate and would die for England as would Atherton and Gough, but I don't think the whole team would."

So what changes does Law think should be made? "Less cricket would help. But if that can't be done they have to make every game important. A passion for your country must be developed as well. All Aussies desperately want to play for Australia but I feel that many English county players are satisfied simply making a living out of the game."

Not surprisingly, he singled out Shane Warne as a key influence on the series. "But it could be any of them. They are an excellent squad and in Warne they have a proven matchwinner. Hopefully Taylor will get some runs early to take the pressure off him, but the support he has been given by the selectors is something England haven't had in the past. Any batting line-up that chooses from Slater, the two Waughs, Blewett, Bevan, Taylor and Elliott will score runs."

Peter Roebuck commented during the winter that the Australian batting was less secure than it looked, and when under pressure, good bowling could dismiss them for low scores. Law lifted an eyebrow and remarked: "Pressure and good bowling - we're in England now."

Squad and tour itinerary

Squad: Mark Taylor (captain), Steve Waugh (vice), Michael Bevan, Andy Bichel, Greg Blewett, Matt Elliott, Adam Gilchrist, Jason Gillespie, Ian Healy, Brendon Julian, Justin Langer, Michael Kasprowicz, Glenn McGrath, Ricky Ponting, Michael Slater, Shane Warne, Mark Waugh.

15 May v Duke of Norfolk's XI (Arundel,

one-day)

17 May v Northampton (one-day)

18 May v Worcestershire (one-day)

20 May v Durham (one-day)

22 May 1st Texaco Trophy one-day

international (Headingley)

24 May 2nd Texaco Trophy one-day

international (The Oval)

25 May 3rd Texaco Trophy one-day

International (Lord's)

27-29 May v Gloucestershire or Sussex or Surrey (3 days), depending on outcome of B & H Cup qualifying matches

31 May-2 June v Derbyshire (3 days)

5-9 June 1st Cornhill Test (Edgbaston)

11-13 June v First Class County TBC

(3 days) depending on qualification for

B & H Cup semi-finals

14-16 June v Leicestershire (3 days)

19-23 June 2nd Cornhill Test (Lord's)

25-27 June v British Universities (Oxford, 3 days)

28-30 June v Hampshire (3 days)

3-7 July 3rd Cornhill Test (Old Trafford)

9 July v Minor Counties XI (one-day)

12 July v Scotland (one-day)

16-18 July v Glamorgan (3 days)

19-21 July v Middlesex (3 days)

24-28 July 4th Cornhill Test (Headingley)

1-4 August v Somerset (4 days)

7-11 August 5th Cornhill Test

(Trent Bridge)

16-18 August v Kent (3 days)

21-25 August 6th Cornhill Test (The Oval)

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