Cricket: Plenty of pride but too many mistakes

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We lost the Ashes series 3-1. It could have been 5-0, or it could have been 2-2. It was that kind of rubber. We made the cardinal error of starting badly, something we knew we could not afford to do, but by the end we competed and competed hard.

We embarked last October aware that they were the world champions and they have just demonstrated exactly why. They did the big things well and the little things well. They were unafraid of tinkering with their side if they thought the occasion demanded it. Horses for courses, they called it, but they read their pitches correctly (witness the turn at Sydney in the last Test which Australia had three spinners to exploit) and Mark Taylor used his bowlers wisely and changed them adroitly.

Yes, Australia deserved to win and yes, we left ourselves with too much to do. But I still maintain not only that the right side was chosen but that it was a good one to boot. The team spirit was there in abundance, the preparation could not have been more thorough. But, subjected to the pressure of maybe the toughest series in world cricket, we made mistakes and there was to be no recovery.

We dropped catches, we did not make enough runs in the first innings. Yet still I don't think that makes us a bad team or that there is maybe a better one waiting to replace us. Wholesale changes now would not necessarily be of benefit. The tour, on reflection, could be split into two halves - before Hobart, where we were beaten by Australia A, and after it when we picked ourselves up.

The changes in the way things are done in the England team are marked. I noticed just how much when I was recalled in late 1997. Nothing is now left to chance in ensuring the players are in the best possible shape. True, we let Australia get away and they punish mistakes. But still we came back well at the end and in that lay our salvation. After going 2-0 down we did not roll over and die. Australia might have won in Melbourne but we actually did.

Sydney really exhibited their spinning prowess, well though Peter Such bowled, and it again demonstrated that we need to develop spinners. It has been mentioned that the batsmen did not play the spin especially well in Sydney. Well, first it should be mentioned that Stuart MacGill and Shane Warne are world-class bowlers of different styles.

MacGill bowls the odd bad ball but in between he has wonderful variety, a good googly and he turns the ball a lot. Warne wears you down with relentless accuracy. They make it hard for the batsman. That said, we simply do not get the practice against it in England.

So, the requirement is urgent. Teams in England are happy enough to pick four seamers to see them through on our pitches and fit in a spinner for a few relief overs. But we need different pitches and on them we need wrist spin. This will not only help the England attack in bowling out opposition sides, it will also be greatly to the benefit of our batsmen in playing the stuff in Test matches.

I have come home disappointed that we did not fulfil our expectations as a squad but reasonably happy with my personal efforts. It is always important to place one's own contributions within the context of how it turned out for the team, but I scored more than 800 runs on tour, nearly 400 in the Tests and was top of the averages. If somebody had suggested that to me before we went I would probably have settled for it.

Test cricket remains a tough arena but I have come back much more relaxed about my place in it. It was some year. It began in the West Indies when I was not in the side. I got in eventually, did well but then in the summer against South Africa did not quite go on as I wanted. But in Australia I stayed around when I was not fluent early on.

Getting out in the last two matches was something of a low note to end on. It was instructive after the final Test to have a chat with the Australians when we had a long drink together at the end of an intense two months. Jason Langer (who is coming back to Middlesex as vice- captain next season, incidentally) said they were impressed after I got hit in the jaw at Perth. I went on and gritted it out and that's what they look for at Test level.

This was flattering but Steve Waugh offered some other words of wisdom. I looked at him especially closely throughout the five matches and was extremely impressed. He plays such a tight, concentrated game and will never be daunted by the bowlers. He stressed the importance of the right approach on getting in and reaching, say, 40. It was crucial then, he said, not to get too far ahead of yourself and start thinking of a hundred. The next goal at that stage should be 50 and then 60.

It would be excellent still to be out there as part of the one-day squad but I appear to be out of favour at the moment. I would like to get back in for the World Cup here in May. One-day cricket is fun and, having been reserve for the last two World Cups, it would be special actually to take part in one.

Of course, I'm not entirely disappointed to be home now. I shall relax for a couple of weeks, but Middlesex will return in March and there may be a few captaincy duties to attend to. Apart from that I want to get down to Highbury to see the Gunners.

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