Cricket: Stewart must exorcise the Aussie ghost

The Ashes: Over-zealous approach can undermine England's captain as he seeks to tame the old enemy
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There is a fashionable theory doing the rounds in Australia at the moment that the Ashes is simply another series and that historical enmity counts for little if the contest isn't a close one. To prove the point, a major Australian newspaper ran a feature about who - given that the Aussie side just back from Pakistan were the greatest team in the world - might be the next best. Their conclusion? Well, the Australian second team of course, though they did cheat and include the likes of Shane Warne and Jason Gillespie, both of whom would be first choice when fit.

When it comes to cricket, particularly against England, Australian arrogance knows no bounds and there was not a trace of irony in the piece. Indeed, at present, much of Australia is likening the forthcoming contest to something like a Manchester derby. Naturally, England are the ones wearing sky blue.

Preventing such saturation needle from piercing your own camp is virtually impossible, which is why the England captain's job here is a particularly difficult one. Even Mike Brearley, a calm person with more match-winners at his disposal than Alec Stewart, was riled into growing a beard when he led England here in the late 1970s. According to Phil Edmonds, both an England and Middlesex colleague of Brearley, the beard was to make him appear more manly to the media and the public, who were relentless in their depiction of him as an educated, stuck-up wimp.

A great admirer of the Australian way, with its bristling aggression, Stewart must somehow persuade his team that not only is an England win overdue, but that it is not as fictitious as most believe. One approach, and the most macho and obvious option in a place like Australia, is to lead by example.

This is Stewart's instinct, anyway, though it hasn't always worked well against these opponents. If there is a blemish on Stewart's Test record, it is that in 19 Tests against Australia he averages 26 with the bat, a failure compared to the 47 he averages over the other 62 Tests he has played. Quite simply, Australia has tended to bring out the worst rather than the best in him and there is a theory that he becomes over- aggressive against the old foe.

Those 19 Tests tell a story, and Warne, who according to the smart money is unlikely to appear before the Third Test in Adelaide, has dismissed him nine times. But if Warne's initial absence offers some succour, a more telling fact is that for 14 of those matches, Stewart was also saddled with keeping wicket, a role he continues to fill. Apart from preventing him from opening the innings - his best position - the strain, especially on his back, is beginning to tell. On a tour as tough as this, it shouldn't surprise anyone if the reserve keeper, Warren Hegg, saw service in more than the odd Test.

With less than a week to go, there persists a strong feeling that England will go into the opening Test of the series in Brisbane fielding seven front-line batsmen and four seam bowlers. "I've not given it much thought, to be honest," Stewart said coyly after Saturday's play. "It's an option and we'll discuss it closer to the time. My own feeling at this point is that we'll probably settle for six batters and five bowlers." If England do go down the circumspect route of an all-seam attack, Angus Fraser, Darren Gough and Alan Mullally are the certainties, while Dominic Cork and Dean Headley will scrap it out for the remaining berth.

Obviously, conditions in Brisbane will play a part in the final decision, as will the form of Atherton's opening partner, Mark Butcher, who once again failed to reach double figures. The Surrey left-hander now has the grand total of nine first-class runs, one fewer than the number of stitches he required when he ducked into a short ball at Perth. Another failure for him in the second innings in Cairns will almost certainly force England to err on the side of caution and play seven batsmen.

If the four-seamer tactic has occasionally worked at Headingley, its success elsewhere does not jog the memory. The Gabba can help seam but if the weather is dry, the black cotton clay tends to crumble. Four years ago against England Warne and the off-spinner Tim May took 12 wickets between them, the leggie taking eight of them in England's second innings.

Conditions are not the point, though, and those with a taste for irony might like to recall that the whole point of Stewart taking the gloves was to allow England to field a balanced five-man bowling attack and give the captain some options whatever the pitch's persuasion.

Moreover, it would not be the first time a squad selected for a set of tactics formulated back in Blighty have been forced into a radical rethink. After all if seven batsmen was always a serious consideration, how is it that there are only seven on tour? As Matthew Hayden, Queensland's opener, rather painfully proved on Friday, broken fingers are part of a batsman's lot and reserves are vital.

But while it is true that nearly every tour forces sides to improvise around form and injury, it all appears rather muddled at the moment. Against the Aussies a calm mind and an uncluttered gameplan are vital.

At the heart of the tourists' paranoia is not the lack of a wicket-taking spinner - Croft and Peter Such were always earmarked for defensive roles - but the problematic No 7 spot. Australia tend to use just four frontline bowlers, but they have the talismanic and unflappable Ian Healy to make good the failings of the upper order. While he enjoys a batting average of 30, with three Test centuries and 22 half-centuries, England barely have anyone capable of scoring double figures.

Cork and Croft have both tried the jacket, though so far it has suited neither. But if Ben Hollioake is expected to grow into it as an all-rounder, John Crawley will probably fill it in Brisbane next week.

With Stewart scoring 52 against Queensland in Cairns, all the main batsmen bar Butcher have now made runs. More importantly, they have showed tenacity in refusing to lie down, though this has generally been in the second innings when Tests can be saved but rarely won. Their runs will have to come in the first innings if their bowlers are to exert the kind of pressure that will bring down Australia's powerful batting line-up twice in the same match.

Past England captains have either been feted or broken over the outcome of an Ashes series, such are the unique pressures on those who lead the skirmish. The chances of him becoming Sir Alec of Cheam on the back of this campaign are slim. And yet one, maybe two Tests can be won. If they come early enough in the series, you never know.

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