Cricket: Survival is not a pretty sight

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The Independent Online
IT WAS no coincidence that England's three most productive batsmen at The Oval were those feeling deeply insecure about their chances of going to Australia. Graeme Hick had to do something to obliterate the memory of his three innings against South Africa, John Crawley had to do all he could to take advantage of a somewhat fortunate opportunity, while Mark Ramprakash never wholly trusts his ability.

The pressure induced by the forthcoming Ashes was counterproductive to England's chances at The Oval and prevented them from continuing the momentum they had built up at Trent Bridge and Headingley. Of course, they were without Mike Atherton and Nasser Hussain which badly upset the rhythm at the start of the innings.

It was important, above all else, for England to win this match and to continue the habit of winning. A high-scoring draw would have been all very well and has always been the likely product of a pretty benign pitch but for England, with their sights on Australia, it was important that they should continue in the way they finished against South Africa.

This was important for the players themselves and also for the signals a convincing victory here would have sent to Australia. Knowing the Aussies they will be only too happy to scoff at England's two recent victories as a flash in the pan.

Having been put into bat and quickly discovered that there was nothing wrong with the pitch, it was crucial for England's cause that they should make a big total and score their runs quickly enough to give their bowlers every chance of dismissing Sri Lanka twice.

The instructions to the batsmen should have been clear and yet individual considerations were allowed to hold sway. If the captain had made it plain to the players that the team's performance was far more important than that of individuals, the approach would surely have been different and we would not have had to suffer such a tedious first two days.

I hate to be a party pooper but surely the evidence gleaned about Hick at Trent Bridge and Headingley is far more relevant to a tough Ashes than his 107 here. And if Crawley had not had the luck to be involved in a last-wicket partnership when he let his hair down with considerable success, the evidence of his innings was not necessarily conclusive either. But those strokes at the end showed what he is capable of and probably earned him a winter in Australia.

Ramprakash will probably never be completely left alone by the dreaded spectre of failure which seems to hang more or less permanently over his brow. We must hope that in one or two of the warm-up matches in Australia he feels the ball on the middle of the bat and wakes up. At The Oval, personal ambition triumphed at the expense of the team.