Cricket: Nasser awaits mission control

Clouds gather over Atherton as the excuses run out, progress proves illusory and the Ashes head Australia's way
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The Independent Online
Same again said the England selectors; same again said the Australian players. So one thumping defeat begat another and, barring miracles over the next two Tests, the Ashes have disappeared for another two years.

Only one non-Australian at Headingley might have greeted the debacle with the hint of a smile. It will be hard enough to sell the reorganisation of English cricket to his county bosses at the best of times; defeat at least gives Lord MacLaurin's proposals, unofficially reported last week but due for formal unveiling at Lord's on Tuesday, a cutting edge. Something has to be done because the unavoidable truth is that, give or take the odd eccentric selection (Smith for Caddick at Headingley was an unforgiveable howler), Australia have been left at the gate by the best in the land and still enter the Fifth Cornhill Test at Trent Bridge on Thursday needing only a draw to retain the Ashes.

This time, none of the traditional excuses can be offered up. The selectors are player- friendly, the counties have been shouldered aside in the quest for national excellence, the preparation has been as thorough as for any home side in living memory, the team have not been shuffled like sentries but cossetted and petted at every turn, the pitch was hand-picked to negate Shane Warne (which it did very successfully, as it happens). No wonder Mike Atherton was rather less than communicative in his post-match press conference. There was nothing to say other than: "Sorry, chaps, we blew it," but the apology was conspicuous by its absence. It made one recall the plaintive cry of a journalist faced with some world-class stonewalling by Sir Alf Ramsey: "Alf, it's our team too."

The selectorial three "Gs" - David Graveney, Mike Gatting and Graham Gooch - now have to decide what to do next. Their policy of continuity lies in tatters, at least for this summer, and Plan B is still on the drawing board. There has been the usual quasi-political blather: take a step back, review the situation, take care of the players, no hasty decisions, with Graveney starring as Corporal Jones. But if we cannot panic now, when should we panic? We are being soundly thrashed by the Australians for the fifth Ashes series in a row, the fire alarms are ringing, the escape ladder is broken and the fire brigade has its feet up. A measure of panic is entirely appropriate.

Hindsight is a priceless virtue, of course, one gifted to journalists above all others. But, in retrospect, the Australians gave a clear indication at Old Trafford that they had the measure of their opponents.

Dean Headley surprised them; nothing much else did. Glenn McGrath has pinpointed Atherton's weakness; Nasser Hussain, despite his excellent century in the second innings at Headingley, is all too easily squared up outside his off stump, when his bat moves like the pendulum of a grandfather clock; and the lower middle order has continually collapsed like Bognor pier.

Sadly, the two batsmen most capable of taking the fight to the opposition, Graham Thorpe and Alec Stewart, have lost confidence and form. Both should be stood down for Trent Bridge, with Chris Adams of Derbyshire and Mark Ramprakash of Middlesex brought in and John Crawley promoted to No 3, where he bats with some success for Lancashire. There is a good player struggling to get out of Crawley. The sight of Jack Russell's battered floppy hat (if he is allowed to wear it under the new ECB dress code) should sink Australian hearts enough to warrant his return on a short lease, while Ashley Giles is surely a better long-term prospect as a left- arm spinner than Phil Tufnell and, most certainly, a greater asset to the lower middle-order batting now that Robert Croft's pretensions with bat and ball have been so ruthlessly exposed.

The inability of Croft to contain the free-scoring Australian batsmen has severely limited Atherton's options. He was the one bowler capable of tying up an end, particularly against the left-handers, but his length has been too erratic and his line too wayward. He seems to have been short of a coherent plan of campaign.

Now might be the right time to reintroduce a Hollioake, probably Adam, though his bowling has not inspired much confidence in the Championship so far this summer. Pitching him straight into the captaincy would be a panic step too far. He and his more gifted younger brother, Ben, who was pulled out of the Under-19 party yesterday and could join the squad, have the knack of rising to the big occasion and a gamble on one or both would not be out of the question. Neither would the odd Aussie accent go amiss in the England dressing-room.

England have no option but to give it some humpty, in the immortal words of Ian Botham before Headingley 1981. The Australians have shown what can be done after a stinging defeat and, believe it or not, there is still a soft underbelly to this touring side, which does not completely rule out England squaring the series in time for The Oval.

Atherton, subdued so far, is at his most dangerous when cornered, but his record-breaking tenure of the captaincy might not survive another resounding loss. Hussain is a ready made replacement, now that his status as a Test-class batsman has been established; Ramprakash would make an ideal lieutenant for the winter tour of the West Indies, by which time the MacLaurin proposals, reportedly for a County Championship split into a three baseball-style "conferences" and a revamped Sunday League, will have been accepted or consigned to the well-stocked bin marked "nice idea, but..."

On the grounds that any change is better than none, the blueprint might yet be rubber-stamped by the counties in September. The move to bring domestic one-day cricket into line with the international 50-over game is justified, as is the move towards more one-day internationals. It is not just the Test team who can popularise the game.

Whether the conference system, complete with fashionable play-offs and at the expense of the traditional fixture list, will make county cricket more tigerish is another matter. Sacrificing the timeless beauties of Bath, Cheltenham and Scarborough for the promise of a few Test victories might seem like a piece of wanton hooliganism about this time next summer.

Possible squad: M Atherton, M Butcher, J Crawley, N Hussain, M Ramprakash, C Adams, J Russell, D Headley, A Caddick, D Gough, A Giles, A Hollioake, B Hollioake.