Cricket: Now England must make leap of faith

Effervescent MacGill emphasises the gulf of belief Stewart's men have to cross to break the losing habit
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The Independent Online
STUART MacGILL, fresh faced and fancy free after taking 12 for 107 in the match, was the obvious candidate for the press conference at the end of the Sydney Test. As he approached the museum at the back of the Ladies' Stand where these affairs are held MacGill saw Vic Marks, formerly of Somerset and England, with whom he had played club cricket in Tiverton. They exchanged a few friendly words and I was sure that I heard MacGill say: "It was just like playing in heaven."

But it is best to check and, when I asked Marks, he gave one of his tolerant giggles: "He actually said that it was just like playing in Devon."

MacGill was looking like a cat that had just consumed a carton of cream; you would never have known that he has a fiery temper and has been briefly banned in Lancashire and in Devon. MacGill, who had outbowled Shane Warne, Australia's more famous leggie, had every reason to feel pleased with himself: 27 wickets at 17.70 meant that he had taken most wickets in the series, more even than the great Glenn McGrath (24 at 20.50).

Contrast MacGill's understandable triumphalism at the end of this 65th Ashes series with Dean Headley, whose 6 for 60 bowled England to a memorable victory by 12 runs in the fourth Test in Melbourne, and gave him the only chance an England player had to boast a bit. On the contrary, Headley's tone was apologetic.

"This is a good England team," he said, "but we haven't played to our full potential... We've taken a lot of stick on this tour because there's a misconception that England players don't care about results. We do and it hurts. There were four or five guys who were close to tears in Hobart." (England had lost by nine wickets to an Australian second team.)

THESE TWO men in their late 20s define the difference between the two teams. Before the first Test in Brisbane, Mark Taylor, the Australian captain, had said that while England had just had a series win (against South Africa last summer) and that that can prove contagious, these England players have been brought up on the losing side. And the general rule in cricket is that if a team do not believe they are going to win, they are probably going to lose. England duly did so, and the score line of 3-1 with one Test drawn frankly flattered them.

If you want to know the reason why, look at England's run of scores - 375 and 179 for 6; 112, 172; 227, 237; 270, 244; 220, 188. Of the original squad of 17, plus Graeme Hick, eight consistently under-performed, and four of those were top-order batsmen - Michael Atherton (110 runs in eight innings at an average of 13.75) and John Crawley (86 runs in six innings at 14.33), plus Mark Butcher and Hick. Both made decent scores - Butcher 116 at Brisbane, and Hick 68 at Perth and 60 at Melbourne - but each averaged only a fraction over 25.

Other tourists who persistently failed were Dominic Cork, Robert Croft, Angus Fraser and Ben Hollioake, but that was less significant because England eventually mounted an attack capable of bowling out Australia twice. I would give two stars to Darren Gough (21 wickets at 32.71) and Headley (19 at 22.26). Gough's average would have been better if a high proportion of the 20 catches dropped by England had not been off his bowling.

My third two-star performer is Nasser Hussain with 407 runs at 45.22, including four 50s. That is the same number as Mark Ramprakash, who would also have won two stars if he had not finished with three scores of 14. Ramprakash occupies the middle ground along with Alan Mullally, who did not do as well as expected; Peter Such, who did better; Alex Tudor, who showed promise; and Warren Hegg, who did not do much wrong. Graham Thorpe, who scored 77 at Brisbane before succumbing to his rickety back, might have had a reviving effect on England's batting, but there is no utility in speculation. He did not.

The other middle-ranking performer was the captain, Alec Stewart. It is no coincidence that the team's performance improved at the same time as his batting. After a dismal start to the series, Ramprakash felt he had to protect his captain from the Australian bowling in the second innings of the Third Test. But Stewart went on to make 63 not out, and his subsequent scores were 107, 52, 3 and 42, for an average of 35.11 - almost 10 runs better than his career average against Australia.

Stewart finally accepted that he cannot perform the heroic role of captain, wicketkeeper and batsman. The ambitious Stewart project had worked against South Africa and was worth trying, but it was a relief when it ended. Fault was found with his tactics, but none with his concentration and inspiration in the field, especially in the decisive last hour of the Melbourne Test.

THE ASHES were lost in Adelaide, although the greater drama there was the revelation that Shane Warne and Mark Waugh had taken $9,000 (pounds 5,500) between them from an Indian bookmaker known to them only as John. Because of the tenacity of the Pakistan Cricket Board's inquiry into allegations of match-fixing, this story stubbornly refuses to go away. Cricket is on the front page of Saturday morning's Australian papers because we now know that Warne was talking to John during the 1994-95 Ashes series.

Warne and Waugh confessed at a special hearing of the inquiry in Melbourne on Friday that this was no fleeting relationship. Waugh recollects "approximately 10 occasions" on which he talked to John. Warne recalls three conversations before games between England and Australia during Atherton's Ashes tour.

The principal issue is whether Salim Malik offered a bribe to Warne to fix Tests between Australia and Pakistan in 1994 (there is no evidence that Warne ever fixed a game), but these new details will increase the unease felt by many Australian cricket supporters. What else don't we know?

The appointment of Warne and Waugh as captain and acting captain of Australia's one-day squad - Steve Waugh is injured - only increases the agitation. It suggests the Board is concerned solely with performance and makes no judgements about behaviour. The decision also obscures the fact that Warne looks like a tub of lard, and that he did not bowl particularly well in the Sydney Test.

Mind you, selectors who leave Michael Slater out of the one-day team are not men whose judgement you would trust. Forget - if you can - that he was run out on 35, Slater's second innings 123 at Sydney was one of the greatest Test performances of the decade.

AUSTRALIA'S play in this series was so good that criticism has become virtually redundant in the past seven weeks, but the culture of the game is still so strong that it can transport Australians to higher forms of lunacy.

Take the case of the editor of Rupert Murdoch's Australian. On learning, a little over a year ago, that Sir Don Bradman required only four runs to average 100.00 in Tests when he was bowled for a duck in his last Test innings at the Oval 50 years ago, the editor instructed his sports staff to arrange for the Don, then aged 89, to be picked to play in a forthcoming series against New Zealand. And to see if New Zealand could not be persuaded to allow Sir Don to score the four runs required, preferably not out. Only when he was persuaded that Sir Don was too upset by the death of his wife to play his part did the editor reluctantly drop the idea.

For a fleeting moment, an Englishman can patronise an Australian on a cricket matter. It does not last, of course.

l Last week I wrote that Colin Miller had bowled for Tiverton when I meant Stuart MacGill. Miller is no stranger to unsung competitions, however, since he played club cricket in Holland.