CRICKET: Old guard's last stand

England are made to pay for bout of nostalgia as winter Down Under prov es a miserable experience for their two creaking veterans
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The Independent Online
IN A game won by a side composed mainly of promising youngsters, Australia A's day-night defeat of England last week was heavy with symbolism and irony. Merv Hughes, overweight and overlooked by the Test selectors for almost a year, dismissed bot h Mike Gatting and Graham Gooch before either got going. It was a clever piece of bowling which showed Hughes knew his victims well.

In Australia, experience and nous are more likely to get you a seat in the Channel Nine commentary box than a berth in the Test side. Despite criticism from the media, the selectors have resisted the temptation of picking their premier fast bowler of thepast five years, preferring instead to ripen younger fruit on the vine, like Glenn McGrath and Damien Fleming.

Not so England, whose nostalgic selections have further exemplified the large gulf of thinking that lies between these two teams. Both Gooch and Gatting were brought here for their experience, their previous Test records getting them the nod over youngerplayers like Mark Ramprakash and Nasser Hussain. They were also picked because - and this is an argument in their favour - at 41 and 37 respectively, they still tower above the mediocrity of county cricket. It was hoped that by batting in the middle order, they could combat Shane Warne.

Sadly it is a plan that has badly misfired, causing schisms in the England camp between the captain and his fellow selectors. Both were picked as good players of spin but old weaknesses against swing and seam have resurfaced to make their struggles for form seem even more pitiful, in what has already been a disastrous tour. With the Ashes gone and the World Series now an incestuous affair between Australia and its illegitimate offspring, the end is surely nigh for two illustrious careers.

The key, as Geoff Boycott is keen to point out, is to be out through the door before people start pointing at it. This is not always as easy as it seems, particularly for two men that have given themselves so totally to their profession for almost 20 years. Such habits are hard to break and Gooch, in particular, is still determined to have one last fling against the West Indies in the summer. That was until his current poor form dropped even further, his bat a claymore out of control, his f eet seemingly manacled together at the crease.

Both, however, will wince at the bare statistics of their batting. After three Tests, Gooch has made 123 runs in six innings, Gatting 57 in five. Such failings at an advanced time of life should spell the end, but such is the injury toll among the tourists that it is not inconceivable for both players to find themselves lining up in Adelaide for the fourth Test. Gooch, who is still hungry for hundreds, may yet have a major innings left in him. With 116 Tests under his belt, he will be acutely aware thathe needs only two more to overtake David Gower as the most capped England player of all time.

Unfortunately, no such milestone exists for Gatting, who has not scored a Test hundred since 1987 and whose pinnacle, a double Test hundred against India, was scored a decade ago in Madras. Of the two players, Gatting has looked more his age and, despiteextra work in the nets and gym, has been unable to find a way out of the rut.

Gatting, like Gooch, had to wait until he had captained his country before he achieved true recognition at Test level. As captains of Middlesex and Essex, the two most successful county sides of the Eighties, neither player's Test record bears much scrutiny: England won 10 times in 34 Tests with Gooch at the helm, and only twice in 23 outings under Gatting.

As a leader, Gatting ruled with more heart than head. England's cricket was never a passionless affair, though sometimes on tour the siege mentality could boil over into petty squabbles with opposition and umpires. And many believe that the Shakoor Rana incident in Faisalabad, which marred the Pakistan tour of 1987, was the beginning of the end for Gatting.

In contrast, Gooch was far more restrained in his leadership. But his adopted dictum - "If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail" - borrowed from his mate Allan Border, meant little was left to chance and pre-match preparation was almost as strenuous as the contest itself. When things began to go awry, however, his teams were almost as bereft of ideas as they were of stamina and England lost six of their last seven Tests under him.

Boycott, never one to bestow plaudits on colleagues, particularly those who opened the innings with him, believes the Essex opener became one of the top five players in world cricket during his period as England captain and was still good enough to warrant selection for this Ashes tour, though he could not find an equivalent case for Gatting's inclusion. Mind you, nor could the player himself, who found news of his imminent selection flattering, but felt the selectors should have opted for a younger man.

Candour such as this is common to both men, as is their patriotism. Yet both have seen fit to take the Rand by captaining rebel tours to South Africa, Gooch in 1982 and Gatting in 1990. At the time, Gooch, very much an Essex man, maintained that nobody was guaranteed a place in the England side and that he was securing his family's financial future, while Gatting's defection to South Africa was a two-fingered, knee-jerk reaction to the shabby treatment he felt he had received from the public school hierarchy at Lord's after the chairman of the TCCB had used his right to veto his appointment as England captain in 1989. Below the surface, though, their actions simply reflect the judgements made by those who face the uncertainty of playing sport for a living, and no one can blame them for that.

However, despite the glory and long service there comes a moment when irrespective of adequate replacements, a man must retire, and let the next generation have its head. Allan Border knew it - despite a few grumbles to the contrary - and he still heads the Australian first-class batting averages.

Gooch and Gatting know it too. They were brought in to do a specific job and they failed. It is now time to stand down while their dignity is still intact and allow the likes of Crawley, Hussain and Ramprakash have their chance. Only by keeping young players encouraged can we hope to make up the ground lost to Australia, since its Cricket Academy, and the policy to promote youth, began to turn boys into men a decade ago.

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