Cricket: Stewart shows renaissance quality

Derek Pringle, Cricket Correspondent, argues that despite a 3- 1 Ashes defeat, the England captain has emerged with credit for a rediscovered fighting spirit
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TWO DIFFERENT teams toured Australia this winter. But if one lost the main prize and most of its self respect mid-way through December, the other won a Test match and many admirers back over the festive season. Defeat, though, in the obsessive world of accountability, is still a debit and certain people are bound to demand a scapegoat or two to be sacrificed for the good of English cricket.

David Lloyd, the team's coach, has recently come under pressure and it was interesting that Alec Stewart stood by him during his end-of-series speech. It was a sentiment he confirmed later in the post-match press conference.

"David has done a tremendous job as coach. We are probably the best-prepared England side there has ever been. But once we cross the white line, then it's down to the 11 players that go out there. The coach can't do any more. He's one of the top people in his job, and I hope he continues to do it."

Stewart has a point and England's problems on this trip have stemmed from bad habits accruing from a bad system rather than a bad coach. Lloyd has his faults - a county cricketer's tendency to whinge over injustice being one of them - but he still has energy and ideas in a job that tends to sap both.

But what is it about England's cricket that makes it as fragile as bone china one minute and as robust as Armitage Shanks the next? Plainly it is not a lack of talent, for on the evidence of the final two Tests, England have plenty.

By a process of elimination, consistency - or lack of it - must be the culprit. Australians tend to be competitive from the cradle. Being nurtured in a tough environment tends to give those who make it an innate self- belief, especially in cricket.

By contrast, English players and coaches seek consistency through a punishing work ethic. This breeds guilt rather than adventure, and it was only when caution was cast aside that England began to push and harry Australia into mistakes.

Even so, too many errors were made to deserve parity, let alone anything more meaningful. Catches, crucial against aggressive teams like Australia who attack constantly, were dropped early on as if they were hot spuds. Once on the floor, they quickly cooled, a bit like England's cricket at that stage.

None, however, were more costly than the reprieves given to Steve Waugh and Ian Healy during the first Test in Brisbane. The let-offs may have cost England at least 200 runs but the scars went deeper. Although a timely tropical storm prevented them from winning, Australia took away an unshakeable belief in their dominance - one that would not have been there had England controlled the game as they should.

The batting, too, lacked a backbone and only Mark Ramprakash and Nasser Hussain showed much of that. While it is true that the top six should get the bulk of the runs, the tail was too fragile, too often.

Throughout this tour, Ramprakash and Hussain have been England's most impressive players, on and off the field. With the bat, the pair have fought every inch, while their aggressive fielding has equalled the intensity of the Australians'. Mark Taylor was not simply being kind when he singled them out as the catalysts for England's revival.

"In the first three Tests," Taylor said, "I didn't see a lot of change from the side that toured four years ago. All the moments that could have gone either way went to us quite easily. In the last two that wasn't the case, and that's the sort of cricket England will have to play in the future if they want to beat us.

"In the field I thought Ramprakash and Hussain were outstanding and that is the sort of thing that sparks teams."

One of the key problems was the resounding failure of Michael Atherton. Although he did not enjoy much fortune with either his back or the umpiring decisions, it was not until the final innings of the series that England's opening partnership passed 50. The new ball is important in Australia and if big scores are to be made, it needs to be combated. Far too often Glenn McGrath was allowed to bowl at the middle order with shine still on the ball.

Atherton's back has now become an issue on almost a daily basis. As most Tests are scheduled for five days, he can probably never quite guarantee his fitness for an entire match. Whether his poor form was down to his back or McGrath will probably never be known; simply speaking, this was his worst series ever. Ironically his nadir, when he failed to score a single run or take a single catch in either innings, coincided with England's stirring win in Melbourne.

Like Graham Thorpe, whose runs were also badly missed, Atherton's immediate future must be uncertain. The opportunity for several months' rest will give him ample time to consider what is best.

England's bowling, felt by many to be their weak link at the outset of the tour, actually proved competitive throughout. Only twice, in the second innings at Brisbane and also in Adelaide, were they below par.

Led by Darren Gough, who had to endure a spate of dropped catches before he began to get his just reward, the emergence of Dean Headley was the real find for England.

It was a mantle due in part to Gough staying fit for the whole rubber, an experience that left him jaded, especially after two sets of back-to- back Tests. His hat-trick in the final Test was a gem, but it could still not inspire him.

Like Peter Such, who took 11 wickets in two Tests, Alan Mullally had his moments and was generally steady. And yet it was Headley, stirred into action during the marathon last session in Melbourne where he took 6 for 60, who looked the most dangerous.

In his three Tests the fast bowler took 19 wickets, an effort that, if extrapolated through all five matches, would have made him the highest wicket-taker in the series. Instead that accolade went to Stuart MacGill, with 27 victims. Had they not won without one at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, it was a tally that might well have exposed England's part-time use of a front-line spinner. As it was, MacGill just confirmed the long- held view that English batsmen struggle against decent wrist-spin.

There is a case for compassion, however, and had England not been so easily overcome by the extreme conditions of Adelaide and Perth, or lost the toss on five consecutive occasions, the series might have ended differently.

The juxtaposition of those two matches meant that England forfeited the Ashes after just three Tests. Yet with the main prize gone, they rallied, producing some of the most passionate and persuasive cricket seen by an England team Down Under in recent times.

Alec Stewart is not a tactician but the players responded to him well. Australia can break teams who lose early on, and he must take much of the credit for his team's belated renaissance.

Stewart, along with his brother-in-law, Mark Butcher, were the only centurions for England in the series. Their two hundreds, as compared with the eight scored by the Aussies, suggests an imbalance of sorts. The big question is, when will England be able to redress it?