Cricket: Only radical change can restore England

New structure for the county game is crucial after the tourists' batting embarrassment.
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ANYONE WHO still has doubts about the need for radical change to the system of first-class cricket in England should have been at the WACA ground on the first day. They would doubt no longer, for the need for change has never been more urgently or glaringly demonstrated. It is so important that a system is put in place as soon as is reasonably possible which will produce players who are mentally tough enough for the demands of the game at the top level. England were flabby, feeble and pathetic and let us not mince words.

They were put into bat by an Australian side which had built up a big psychological advantage in Brisbane. The pitch was faster and bouncier than any other they will find in Australia but nothing like as fast as it was in the Sixties and early Seventies, when presided over by the curator Roy Abbott.

In those days, it shone like glass and you could almost shave in it. In 1970, Barry Richards scored 325 in a day for South Australia at the WACA. The pitch then was shining but, as he said, it had an even bounce which is so important for batsmen. It had an even bounce yesterday although you might never have guessed it from the way the England side approached their batting.

The Australians bowled well in that they kept to an excellent line and found some movement. Glenn McGrath is a fine fast bowler; one to put alongside Allan Donald and Curtly Ambrose but the others, Damien Fleming and Jason Gillespie, are not world beaters. To overcome these obstacles required determination, guts, mental toughness, a good technique and, of course, common sense, none of which should have been beyond the Englishmen. They must have known that they had to stick out their chins and defy McGrath. Only Mark Ramprakash hinted at this and ended up taking it too literally and needing stitches inserted in his chin.

A sound technique was crucial to enable the batsmen to get in behind the line of the ball, to leave it alone whenever possible and to play their strokes on a pitch which was made for the purpose with the ball coming through on to the bat.

Only Nasser Hussain got a real pearler which might have had anyone. McGrath bowled him one on a good length on the off stump which drew him forward and left the bat just enough to find the edge.

Mark Butcher paid the penalty of playing across the line of the ball; Mike Atherton need not have played a stroke; Alec Stewart left a gap between bat and pad and on it went to hit the stumps.

The worst innings of all was played by John Crawley. First, he played a ball into the covers and was not looking when it was misfielded and wasted the chance of a run. When he pushed into the mid-on gap, he ran so slowly that there was never a chance they would go for the second run which was there for the taking.

An airy force with bat away from body saw him dropped in the gully and then he flapped at Gillespie, again with his bat away from his body, and was caught at second slip. Two balls later Graeme Hick made the same mistake and was caught behind. It was all so elementary.

When England took the field, the fast bowlers did a good job and it was not their fault that three catches went down. Ben Hollioake, on as substitute, dived far to his left in the gully for a lobbed catch from Michael Slater but could not hold on. Hick then underlined a dreadful day when he palmed a catch from Slater over the bar at second slip as he drove and then, when Mark Taylor drove, he dropped a straightforward one at knee height in the same position. It was as dreadful as it was embarrassing.

With a two-tier county system, there will soon be a concentration of excellence in the top division. The best will always be playing against the best; there will be no easy matches and when they come to Test cricket, players will not make all these fundamental mistakes. Take the covers off the pitches too, and leave them off and the cure might one day even be complete.