Cricket: Poor planning, worse execution

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The Independent Online
Before this Ashes series a few of us were having a beer, waving the flag, predicting the outcome and enjoying some of the trivia games such gatherings are wont to generate. One challenge was, "pick the headline we'd hate to see".

The most common offering was "Mark Taylor Drops Himself". Those fearful of it reasoned that if it came to pass it could mean only that Australia, as well as Taylor, were in very deep trouble. It would probably mean that the Ashes were on the line. What could be worse than that?

My dreaded headline offered the same end-result - Australia in trouble - but my potholed road to disaster was less a case of death by the Australian captain's own hand, more a case of death by magic; it read, "Aussies Tuffed". As it implied, I thought that Phil Tufnell had shown enough maturity, and mastery of his finger-spinning talent, in New Zealand to suggest he was going to be a serious worry for us.

I need not have worried. Phil's fizz at the Foster's Oval is no more than an exercise in futility. Nice for his Test average and his ego, but the Ashes are gone. For one reason or another the England selectors chose to fight for them on seaming pitches. To be fair, the dodgy weather had a good deal to do with that and, if I were an England selector, I would be making sure everyone understood that.

After all, there would have had to be a very, very good reason to dismantle the successful combination of Darren Gough (26 wickets on the winter tours). Robert Croft (18) and Tufnell (14). One would hope that they didn't opt for Croft because they thought he might make more runs than Tufnell.

And only a cynic might wonder if they feared bare pitches for spinners would suit Australia's Shane Warne as much as Tufnell and Croft. The beating of this Australian team is unlikely to be achieved via pace, military medium, or a cog up from that.

Advocates of that theory ignore the fact that Taylor's men have accounted for the West Indies (twice) and South Africa in recent successive series. Some observers of England's disappointing summer might prefer not to be reminded of the balance - and that's the key word - of the bowling attack England played in the final Test against New Zealand, before this Ashes series: Cork, Gough, Caddick, Croft, Tufnell. Mind you, Croft is in serious need of some coaching for tough cricket, about the right line to bowl to right-handers, how to field, and how to bat. His promise early was badly breached later in the pressure-cooker of the Test game.

Of course, these are merely idle thoughts and, now that the Ashes have been fought for and handsomely won, such musings tend to proliferate.

For instance, name your Player of the Series. Glenn McGrath had barnacles on him in the beginning, but now he shimmers, all platinum. Consider his mindset: does he remind you of the guard dog that tears the seat out of your trousers, then sits before you, cloth limply hanging from bared teeth? There's a message there: "I'm in charge, bad luck."

His line and length is relentlessly on target, as if there are sniper's sights that suddenly pop up on his left shoulder when he raises his leading arm going into delivery. He is a fast bowler with that rare talent to create fear in the mind of the batsman. How also can we explain Graham Thorpe's demise, bowled leg stump at the Oval?

With McGrath coming from around the wicket, Thorpe was so fearful of an edge to the wicketkeeper, so desperate to cover his off-stump, he forgot about the leg one. Elementary stuff for a clear-thinking country lad as McGrath is. Here's another thought about McGrath - I don't think he's even raised a sweat. Have you seen him once wipe his brow like Merv Hughes used to, or flick the sweat from his eyebrows like Dennis Lillee?

Any other nominations? Ian Healy. Historically, the keeper is sort of taken for granted. An overlooked species, not just for awards. Keepers never get the captaincy, not just because of concentration overload, but because they are perceived to be reactive, not proactive.

A batsman or a bowler is more likely to command centre stage. Adam Gilchrist, who went home early from this tour, is being touted as a future Australian captain. It shouldn't happen. And so well is Healy keeping his successor might just be the keeper in the generation after Gilchrist.

Some will nominate Steve Waugh as The Man. This defies the logic that says bowlers win matches. But bowlers do need something to bowl at - a big score. Steve is better than anyone else at that. The only point I would make about Waugh, and his contribution at the crease in this series, is this: Wisden's announcement that Sri Lanka's Sanath Jayasuriya is now the No 1 batsman in the world has about as much going for it as The Peanut Butter Man in a microwave on high for a minute.

In signing off, there are one or two further points that can be raised: when England dispensed with John Crawley before this Test, what does it say for the standard of their game when they recall a proven Test failure, but a county champion, Mark Ramprakash, going on 28? And, what possesses a bright young prospect like Adam Hollioake to stand still and watch a ball skittle his middle stump, without even a late, reflex action to defend it?

Still, the problems aren't all England's - what happened to Mark Waugh's form? And, what will happen to Australia if Mark Taylor's knockers get their way?